Monday, December 10, 2007

On commuting and a conceptual art idea

One of the modes of transportation that I use on my way to work is the commuter train. Modern train journeys - especially one as short, precise and impersonal as going to work can be a very sterile, degrading affair. People shuffling into their self assigned spaces, making sure that the unwritten but mandatory three inch space is left between them and the other significant human being(s) that close in on the individual as the lurch begins in earnest is a constant staple. Finding a space and holding onto a hang rail is also enormously complicated. It has to be located in such a position where one’s hand does not accidentally or remotely touch anyone else’s body part(s). The space surrounding the length of the arm - however twisted and sinuous that might be - has to be similarly free from intruding flesh or handbag. Nonchalance in pose might be an added plus, but may not come easy. Once the handhold and foothold is secure, an important and necessary piece of the journey begins - finding a blank piece of space to stare such that we do not inadvertently stare into anybody else's eyes, piece of clothing or anatomical feature (ever fearful of actually making a human to human connection). This can take an awkward 30 seconds to a minute that may sometimes be thwarted by the wandering eyeball resting upon an inconvenient hairstyle, inconvenient truths, an open fly, contents of unkempt bag or an unshaven face. Trying to quickly avert attention and the resulting vicarious vortex of thoughts and relations they spur is an art in and of itself. The eye darts quickly assessing alternative spots until a favorable space that we could call our very own is found, locked in position and is synchronized with the motions of the locomotive. It was as if that a space of the subway skin were reserved for us during the ride and came as a privilege included in the act of buying the ticket. The occasional stops, fitful starts and the jars that the metal on metal motion entails only results in additional strains entailed by the individual in ensuring that the unseeing eye remain locked to the now reserved point of contact. Sometimes, a baby's wail could break the pristine silence and might disastrously result in errant motions of the eyes from assigned spots, only to be restored to equilibrium by even quicker, corrective and somewhat evasive actions. Of course, this might also involve movements that involve a quick reappraisal of the situation and other convenient spots to focus on. Getting out is as sterile as getting in – finding your way out while making sure that nobody is toppled over, touched, fondled or brushed aside. The whole process makes me sometimes think that maybe each of us harbor the pestilence and anything as benign as eye contact or as audacious as an actual inadvertent touch might make the resident germs jump and bridge the ever expanding gulfs that we artificially build. I am not envisaging or advocating travel where the bump and grind of the nocturnal dance floor is duplicated, but a place where a few hellos, pleasantries and an involuntary smile might lift the otherwise sour prospects. Of course, this is not going to happen. This is New York. One of these days, I plan to steal a video camera in with me on the train and will focus the lens to the objects that my eye locks to – in other words, mere nothingness, an empty void that we try and create in the little times that strangers in a big city hustle together. The recorded voice, the background clackety clack of the metal wheels and the automated, disembodied white male voice announcing the stops and exhorting us to say something when we see something being the only signs of hospitality. It indeed will be a good conceptual art video installation.

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