a little airport writing

(an excerpt from an article I’m working on…)

In a cultural-geographical sense, the international airport is one system implicated in both the fears of cultural degradation and the celebrations of new hybrid forms brought about through contemporary globalisation, as people and places are brought together through greater speed and frequency of encounter. The old routes of trade, colonisation and settlement have morphed into criss-crossing jet streams of multinational corporate capital, leisure tourism, the international labour market, and temporary and permanent emigrations. Relatively slow border crossings by boat, train or foot still occur of course; but, for example, the high profile of asylum seeker arrivals by boat in Australia masks the far greater number who arrive by plane. Ironically space travel has only recently gone commercial, with suborbital flights posing a viable money-maker for the new space tourism industry, just as concern over peak oil suggests that the days of jet plane travel are limited. Virtual journeys through the nerve centres of the internet and other telecommunications channels are conducted in their trillions each day as people attend meetings via Skype halfway around the globe, capital is moved from one account to another, and virtual worlds are constructed and traversed by our avatars.

At the crossroads of this frantic mobility sits the airport: a transit space on the global stage. An exemplary in-between or ‘third’ space in which the nowhere/anywhere modes of cosmopolitanism are performed, but also (paradoxically) where the boundaries of nationhood are most strictly asserted in the form of immigration control. Airport spaces such as Terminal 5 at JFK make much of their connections to the Jet Set glamour of mid-twentieth century aviation, representing a gateway to romantic, far-off destinations and also a gateway to modernity’s global reach. Coincidentally, Alastair Gordon opens Naked Airport, his cultural history of the airport, with the memory of his first visit to the TWA Terminal in 1964. Arriving at the airport just after a visit to General Motor’s Futurama exhibit down the road at the world’s fair at Flushing Meadows, Gordon remembers his response to Saarinen’s terminal, “This wasn’t pretending to be the future; this was the future” (2004, 2, original emphasis).

The air was charged with anticipation. Pilots stepped through pools of milky light. Beautiful stewardesses trailed behind them wearing trim red outfits and perfectly straight stocking seams. The ambient lighting, the flirtatious smiles, the lipstick-red carpet and uniforms, the cushioned benches and steel railings curving around the mezzanine – all conspired on the senses. Even the clock that hung from the ceiling had a suggestive globular shape. We sat in an oversize conversation pit, beneath a panoramic screen of glass and watched the service vehicles scoot between the planes. ‘This is unbelievably cool,’ said my cousin in a hushed, almost reverential tone.

When his flight was announced, he walked up the long umbilical departure tube, turned once to wave, like an astronaut, and then disappeared into the satellite at the far end of the tube. There was an otherworldly, Twilight Zone quality to this moment – as if my cousin were flying not to London but to Mars (ibid).

As Gordon quickly notes, however, something has happened in the short interval between this crystalline memory from 1964 and his many disappointments in later years. Rather, he claims our experiences of the airport are attracting and repelling in equal measure, and very often uncomfortable and boring. “The airport is at once a place, a system, a cultural artifact that brings us face-to-face with the advantages as well as the frustrations of modernity” (4-5). Against a patina of today’s shopping-mall worldliness, particularities of place and a range of embodied manoeuvres are made in our airports; and all the while global pandemics and terrorism exert surveillance constrictions on both stateless refugee and transnational elite alike.