The remains of CJ Twomey have blazed an enormously rich path to eternal rest since his death in 2010. Over 800 packets of CJ’s cremated remains have been scattered in an astounding range of places including baseball diamonds (e.g., Camden Yards and Fenway Park), historic sites (e.g., Notre Dame, Ground Zero, the Colosseum), tourist destinations (e.g., the Vegas Strip, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, Central Park), sporting event sites (e.g., the finish line of the Boston Marathon, Tour de France climb Alpe d’Huez), and theme parks (e.g., Disney World, Disneyland Paris). Next week some of CJ’s ashes will be sent into space aboard a rocket launched by a Houston firm that specializes in the delivery of human remains into earth orbit. As his ashes now travel to space, CJ joins Timothy Leary, James Doohan, L. Gordon Cooper, and Gene Rodenberry, who also were placed to rest in orbit or returned to earth after suborbital flight (lunar deposits are expected to be available in the next two years, and all the burial options for humans are now available for pets as well).
CJ’s global and spatial scattering is perhaps distinguished by the scale of memorialization; a legion of people touched by his story have shepherded his remains to numerous resting places. Nevertheless, one survey conservatively suggests that about 135,000 survivors scatter the ashes of their families and friends each year (another says one-third of cremated remains are scattered), and many of those remains are left in public spaces ranging from stadiums to theme parks. Eternal rest now routinely reaches outside a stereotypical peaceful cemetery as the scripted funeral gradually disappears. Cremation scattering extends memorialization to an increasingly rich range of symbolically meaningful public places, transforming burial rituals and memorial landscapes alike in a bereavement process that survivors control long after death.
Human cremated remains typically account for about 3.5% of body mass, which is normally between four and six pounds of coarse calcium phosphate dust. Modest quantities of the ash will become part of surrounding soils and wash away within a few days under most conditions, and they pose no health hazards. Nevertheless, many people seem reluctant to reconcile the literal presence of human remains in even trace form with public space, and we seem unwilling to concede that the Fenway Park warning track and Pirates of the Caribbean are memorial landscapes. Read the rest of this entry
Santa Claus’ office and workshop sit along the Arctic Circle in Rovaniemi, Finland, and from his arctic headquarters Santa spends the year checking his list and entertaining visitors to Santa Claus Village. Nestled in the Lapland woods, the village’s highlight is perhaps Santa Claus’ office, where Saint Nick and his elves hold forth for reviews of children’s behavior and photographs. The Village’s attractions also include a post office, reindeer, a husky park, snowmobile trails, and shopping ranging from jewelry to log houses. Not far away sits Santa Park, an underground labyrinth of caves including an elf school, gingerbread bakery, ice bar, and an Angry Birds Activity Area; for good measure, Santa’s “hidden command center” Joulukka sits in the heart of the forest in the same area.
It may be tempting to dismiss the Finnish holiday attractions as shallow consumer experiences, and a variety of scholars and ideologues routinely scorn places like Santa Claus Village and Disney World or reduce them to yet another post-modern self-delusion. Much of contemporary tourism may be a search for pure diversionary pleasure in such places that embrace spectacle, celebrate patently inauthentic narratives, and offer unadulterated joy. In the midst of the Santa attractions’ imagination of the Yuletide, though, a quite concrete and even dark history exists in an especially fascinating relationship with the theatrical Christmas narrative woven in Santa Claus Village. Read the rest of this entry
The cinder-block walls and windowless offices of IUPUI’s Cavanaugh Hall have aged rather gracelessly over more than four decades. The utterly functional brutal modernist building will inevitably meet the wrecking ball someday, but in the meantime administrators extend the decaying structure’s life with a host of makeshift changes. The most recent renovations have come to a series of women’s restrooms (men’s apparently will undergo similar changes soon), which are now appointed with new tile, another set of toilets, and a slightly different floor plan. None of those changes has prompted more fevered discussion than the installation of a labyrinth entrance; that is, the new bathrooms have no doors. The labyrinth design is intended to minimize germ transmission and make restrooms more secure spaces, and nothing is literally visible from the adjoining public hallway; nevertheless, the absence of doors and the sonic amplification provided by the tile have unleashed a host of anxieties that illuminate the unmentionable, underscore the divisions between public and private spaces, and highlight the limits of functional restroom design.
The definitive study of the washroom is perhaps still architect Alexander Kira’s 1966 masterpiece The Bathroom. Based on extensive research between 1958 and 1966, Kira ambitiously approached the bathroom as an architectural, functional, ergonomic, and social space. Kira pilloried architects’ sloppy bathroom designs and the century of architectural planning that viewed bathrooms as mere afterthoughts. Kira instead ethnographically delved into the “bathroom experience” as a design issue with concrete social and psychological dimensions that needed to be placed at the heart of spatial planning. Among other things, Kira systematically dissected such hither-to unexamined issues as the physics of urine trajectories, the space between urinals, the physiology of seated positioning, the cleaning ineffectiveness of toilet paper (a passage not for those apprehensive of cooties), and the anxieties created by the acoustics of elimination. Read the rest of this entry
There may be no more audacious pursuit of global justice than the Air Guitar World Championship’s aspiration to “promote world peace. According to the ideology of the Air Guitar, wars would end, climate change stop and all bad things disappear, if all the people in the world played the Air Guitar.” It is perhaps difficult to conceive of a host of global diplomats exaggerating the fluid moves of Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix, yet last week a legion of the faithful gathered in Oulu, Finland for the 19th annual Air Guitar World Championship’s unique performance of self-aware camp, bold sincerity, naïve optimism, and playful theatre. Air guitar is quite possibly among the most democratic if not egalitarian of all expressive arts. Even the clumsiest person is capable of reproducing the familiar motions of guitar players, and it harbors an interesting politics of community that may not yield world peace, but it is a fascinating and idealistic starting point.
It is tempting to reduce air guitar to shallow imitation of authentic musical performance, but air guitar is not really mimicking as much as it is its own performance. Air guitar playing makes sense to audiences because it invokes physical and musical referents that nearly all of us know. In some ways, this is much like Elvis performance artists, who are not “impersonators” as much as they interpret threads of popular musical consciousness. Where Elvis performance artists do sing, air guitar may be distinguished by its celebration of the pleasure so many of us take in music we cannot hope to play and the optimistic democracy of air guitar. The compelling fundamental attraction of air guitar is that it appears so simple and accessible to all of us with the faintest musical sentiments and a suppressed desire to strut about with Angus Young’s theatrical lack of self-consciousness. Read the rest of this entry
Music has a rather ephemeral materiality rendered in tangible things like CDs, cassettes, records, and perhaps even digital playlists, but its more compelling archaeological dimension is probably the historical landscapes of clubs and music districts that dot nearly every community. Local grassroots music tends to be relatively dynamic, but live music holds a tenacious if ever-transforming grip on the landscape: most communities can point to a distinctive soundscape of clubs, impromptu spaces, and places from churches to schools where music was the heart of local experience.
Music has had a profoundly consequential hold on youth culture for most of the last century, but many places’ local musical heritages are in ruins or razed. The musical landscape is exceptionally dynamic: a parade of fringe styles continually step forward in nearly every place, articulating a host of local, generational, and social experiences. Most musical circles seek some modestly satisfying measure of relevance, creative community, and profitability, and some express broad if not universal anxieties and sentiments while others are simply more ephemeral sounds. Read the rest of this entry
Much of our fascination with ruins—and perhaps some of our uneasiness—revolves around their stark testimony to failure, and perhaps no ruins aesthetically underscore the collapse of modernity more clearly than public housing. Public housing was born from a distinctive marriage of modernist optimism and racist and classist ideologies aspiring to remake the American city (and with many global parallels). Last week Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass housing project went under the wrecking ball, another in a series of 20th-century housing projects—Pruitt-Igoe, Cabrini Green, the Robert Taylor Homes—that are routinely stereotyped as the epitaph for modernity’s over-reaching ambition, xenophobic nostalgia, or the misplaced optimism of state-supported housing. Regardless of their legacy, the ruins and razing of public housing raise interesting questions about gaze and how we see and imagine particular sorts of ruins.
Ruins fascinate us because they energize our imaginations, providing material evidence of lost experiences while simultaneously underscoring the passing of that heritage. Those lost experiences assume meaning through an idiosyncratic mix of popular iconography, mass discourses, and personal spatial and material experiences that shape how we perceive places like Detroit (what Edward Said referred to as “imaginative geographies”). Every ruin fuels a distinctive corner of our imagination and tells a distinct sort of story, and the narrative of public housing ruination is distinguished in modest but critical ways from the tales woven about industrial decline, dead malls, or eroding post-Soviet landscapes. Read the rest of this entry
Detroit’s Brush Park was once one of the city’s finest Gilded Age neighborhoods, a 22-block community of mansions that included a host of high style Victorian homes within reach of downtown. Referred to by one period observer as the “little Paris of the Midwest,” Brush Park was home to some of the city’s wealthiest residents between the mid-19th century and the early 20th century, when it began to gradually decline, transformed into boarding houses during the Depression and subsequently declining along with much of the postwar city. Today, only about 80 of the neighborhood’s roughly 300 original structures remains standing. Some rehabilitated homes stand alongside others that are decaying as forlorn testimony to the neighborhood’s former glory, and the remaining homes are magnets for artists, preservationists, and urbanites re-imagining the life of the city. Read the rest of this entry
In June, 1969 Edward Zebrowski held a massive party at Indianapolis’ Claypool Hotel. The lavish Claypool opened in 1903, distinguished by its gargantuan lobby and opulent meeting rooms and the novel luxury of a private bath in each of the 450 guest rooms. Numerous conventions met at the Claypool, and in its strategic location blocks from the State Capitol the Claypool was home to both the Republican and Democratic parties and hosted a stream of politicians over three-quarters of the 20th century. On June 23, 1967, though, 300 Claypool guests including the visiting Tacoma baseball team were forced out to the street by a fire, and by the time Edward Zebrowski had his party in 1969 the hotel faced the wrecking ball.
That wrecking ball was swung by Ed Zebrowski himself, who ushered his guests outside at midnight to watch the floodlit building meet its end. Such theatrical demolition was Zebrowski’s hallmark: in 1967 Zebrowski erected bleachers and had an organ player serenade the lunchtime crowd watching the dismantling of the 12-story Pythian building. His firm dismantled much of the city’s aging architectural fabric over more than a decade of fascinating destructive spectacles, tearing down the Marion County Courthouse in 1962 (built in 1876), the Maennerchor Hall (1907) in 1974, and the Central State Hospital Department for Women (opened in 1888) in 1975. When Zebrowski was finished, he left a large sign in many of the empty lots proclaiming “Zebrowski was here.” Read the rest of this entry
A variety of ideologues routinely reduce selfies to yet another confirmation of our mass superficiality. Instagram is indeed littered with scores of us primping for our bathroom mirrors and posing at arm’s length for “ego shots”: it seems infeasible to salvage especially profound insight into contemporary society from Justin Bieber’s self-involved posing or Kim Kardashian’s often-ridiculous stream of booty calls. Nevertheless, the countless online selfies register a self-consciousness about appearance that is likely common in every historical moment, and the recent flood of online selfies may simply confirm that we know we are being seen and we are cultivating our appearance for others. After looking in the mirror for millennia, digitization has provided a novel mechanism to re-imagine, manipulate, and project a broad range of personal reflections into broader social space.
Last week a New Yorker article fueled selfie critics who lamented the apparent narcissism of selfies at Auschwitz. The page was removed after a host of media decried self portraits at the concentration camp and rejected (or simply did not comprehend) the page’s clumsy attempt to use irony to assess the holocaust’s social meanings. The Israeli page collected youths’ concentration camp selfies, and the images push irreverence and irony beyond many peoples’ tolerance: the page included typical selfie poses of pouting expressions and stylized self-contemplation, but these selfies were at places like the iconic Auschwitz gates or had sarcastic added descriptions such as “Even here I’m drop dead gorgeous!” Read the rest of this entry
The postwar suburb seems painted in our collective imagination as a White nuclear family standing proudly in front of a standardized tract home and a chrome-accented American car. Fortunately a rich scholarship on postwar suburbia has complicated or utterly unraveled that and many other suburban stereotypes, underscoring the material, social, and historical diversity of suburban landscapes: we know suburbia included a multitude of architectural forms beyond the interchangeable Levittown box; the roots of the suburbs reach well into the 19th century; working-class families predominated; and we are paying increasingly more attention to the suburban experience along the color line.
In 1947 Henry and Della Greer were among Indianapolis, Indiana’s first African-American suburbanites, and in many ways the story of the Greers and their neighbors might be told in many more places. Henry was a former hotel porter who worked as a salesman and real estate agent before opening the Demi-Jon Liquor Store on North West Street in December, 1935 (and eventually selling life insurance). His wife Della was an art teacher at Crispus Attucks High School, where she taught for 20 years beginning in 1936. The Greers blazed a trail into rural Washington Township that would find them neighbored within a decade by a series of African-American subdivisions. That suburban African-American story has been untold in many communities, swept aside in a broader moral narrative that decries suburban conformity and material homogeneity and seems unable to fathom how the suburbs have been so alluring to so many Americans. There is no shortage of outstanding scholarship on Black suburbanization (for instance, Andrew Wiese’s Places of their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century), but as these communities transform and in many cases deteriorate their histories risk being ignored and lost on the contemporary landscape. Despite some wonderful preservation projects in communities like Addisleigh (New York), Berkley Square (Las Vegas), and Conant Gardens (Detroit), many communities seem slow to comprehend the consequence of Black suburban life in the postwar American experience. Read the rest of this entry