This contribution is part of “In Context,” a series that features guest curators who browse the archives of MAS Context, uncovering new relationships between articles and establishing new topics.
Tom James’ essay, “The Advanced Passenger Train,” cuts frankly to the poetry of a “vision of the future”—an advanced train, which was unveiled in the 1970s by British Rail and capable of traveling at an unprecedented 155mph. The poetry resides in the fact that the APT now sits on a dead-end track, reaching a top speed of “zero,” as it has for roughly three decades. James deftly describes APT’s high-profile breakdowns and motion-sickness bloopers, which left sick-bags full and the press with plenty to write about.
“The future is here,” a trope rolled out for the APT’s premiere, quickly became an irony that needs no introduction. Perhaps the most touching sentence in James’ piece is one that briefly mentions a group of volunteers who’ve “lovingly restored” the APT, eclipsed though it is by its past, the present, and a Tesco superstore.
For this edition of In Context, James’ essay is the coat-rack off of which my four additional selections hang: like James’ story, all of them are an examination of the absurdities, narratives and (in some cases) melancholies of circumstance and unpredictability. As a collection, the five articles I’ve selected all detail some “vision of the future,” obstructed by a present that wasn’t properly addressed in the initial designs. Each article is a stethoscope, amplifying the breaths and pulses of misunderstandings—some purposeful and dangerous, some honest and strange.
Iker Gil and Andrew Clark’s interview with photographer Mitch Epstein, illustrated as it is by Epstein’s startling photographs of America’s power plants within natural and social contexts, is a significant confrontation between foregrounds and backgrounds: between power and its absence, nature and its poisons, security and paranoia.
Gil and Clark ask smart, direct questions that allow Epstein to clearly elaborate on the basic and sometimes chilling discoveries of his project. “As I went about trying to make pictures, I saw that the whole notion of power was something often hidden and, in a sense, very potent,” says Epstein, encapsulating the double meaning of his work. “Often times, when you are in these small places, you have local law enforcement very much working in tandem with the private security and so on. Let’s face it. They are drinking in the same bar,” Epstein tells Gil and Clark. “The irony is that all of these places are all photographed, they are in Google Earth, everything is transparent. So then, what is the big deal? I think there really isn’t a big deal.”
The absurdity of these kinds of “big deals,” which history so often skewers and which clutter the “hubris” bins of relevant memories, is also apparent in the photo essays of Brian Rose and Lisa Hirmer. Rose’s portraits of the Berlin Wall, both as a physical structure and a phantom limb, speak to the farce of “solid” or “concrete” ideology. Hirmer’s photographs of well-kept single-family homes in Windsor, Canada, sitting shuttered and empty, are sentences in a much bigger story about a bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor, and the standstill between questionable interests, money, big ideas, and their sad consequences.
Although these two photo essays zero in on vastly different geographies and moments in history, they are united in their thoughtful reflections of physical and cerebral life—they are the stuff of dark regrets and dark comedy alike.
Finally, I end with Mike Walsh’s essay, “She Was Not Amused,” a first-person account of traveling America’s fifty states in an examination and defense of bowling alleys, and their social relevance. Ostensibly “lighter” in tone than the previous four articles, Walsh’s essay similarly examines the symbolism attached to spaces and structures, and the narratives that adjust and unravel according to those physical confines. Anyone who’s seen The Big Lebowski or experienced its ripple effect will sing an ‘amen’ to the truth that bowling alleys are windows into an important kind of America.
“Any given bowling alley on any given day is a microcosm of the community in which it sits,” writes Walsh. “The bowling alley is a gathering place, and much more transpires within its confines than merely a series of sporting contests divided into ten frames. People don’t just bowl at bowling alleys. They eat and drink. They karaoke. They fall in love. They sneak behind the vending machines and have sex. They spend the one Saturday afternoon a month they have custody of their son there.”
Besides the concepts and general atmospheres that bond the five pieces I’ve selected, there is a shared ease and honesty with which all of these written and photo essays are presented. They are complex and weighty in content, but not in presentation. That “poetry” I mentioned back in the first sentence is integral to the way that these five pieces communicate about spaces and their effects on us. Sometimes it takes the tools of fiction to comment most accurately on the facts.
THE ADVANCED PASSENGER TRAIN
Short Essay by Tom James. Photography by Theo Simpson.
Issue: 18 | IMPROBABLE SUMMER 13
(AS) AMERICAN (AS) POWER
Iker Gil and Andrew Clark interview photographer Mitch Epstein, author of American Power.
Issue: 5 | ENERGY SPRING 10
THE LOST BORDER
Photo Essay by photographer Brian Rose.
Issue: 17 | BOUNDARY SPRING 13
A BRIDGE TOO FAR
Text and photographs by Lisa Hirmer.
Issue: 18 | IMPROBABLE SUMMER 13
SHE WAS NOT AMUSED
Essay by Mike Walsh.
Issue: 6 | AMUSEMENT SUMMER 10