Trying to make sense of the country I spent two weeks living and exploring (predominantly on foot), the over whelming sense was their dependence on the prosthetic edict, ' I can, therefore I am ' (Celia Lury, 1998, Prosthetic Culture). Techno-phillia is enacted in all areas of life: from the historically grounded can do spirit of the pioneers exhibited by the a friend's rebuilding of a rented apartment, to the ubiquitous machinery an metal that makes up the built environment, and most abruptly - for someone coming from England - the sovereignty and commodification of health.
Even a country so dependent and enamoured with the use of hydro carbons (I'm thinking here the ridiculously over-powered cars and trucks), the green issue is beginning to gain traction - in New York at least. Posters on the subway urge more responsible use of utilities and resources, there are recycling bins on the streets and hybrid technology public transport. Yet given the US's ability to marginalise immigrant minorities (I never saw anyone work in kitchen who wasn't Mexican) it is no surprise that this push to go green has created an underclass of recyclers who have been quick to try and capitalise on scant rewards for recyclable commodities. In an effort to supplement poor wages many of the city's poor sort plastic bottles from rubbish bins and sacks, although this might seem simply a case of the shock of the real int he west, it also seems to me to create the impression amongst other New Yorkers that the rag pickers are providing something akin to a service, and in a society so dominated by spectacular corporate service provision, this 'provision' both takes the weight of responsibility off most consumers and, by virtue of the recycler's marginalization, seemed to create a (albeit small) stigma attached to the act of recycling.
This contradiction arising out of the of the ultra-commodifcation of social functions was no more apparent than in the healthcare system. A mentality described in Adam Curtis's 2007 documentary The Trap, of self medication and self normalisation that arose out of the social quantification that arose out of the Cold War is as ubiquitous as ever. Having a drink with some friends the sedative Xanax came up in conversation, most having used it and one person even admitting "I have at least one panic attack a month". I can't speak for the reasons or solution for this, but it was striking to see the ease with which they would self medicate, both the expectation that they would and that self-medication is the normal solution rather than changing lifestyle, and that the flipancy with which high strength drugs were discussed and used for health reasons: this wasn't (ostensibly at least) recreational drug use in spite of its hallucinogenic effects.
Seeing the ultra privatised healthcare system in this light could just be a culture-shock, but the commodification of drugs clearly equalised these products with all others. Here was one of the most ironic contradictions, cigarettes and beer on sale in pharmacies, more appropriately called drug stores in the U.S. The cause of illness may be on sale here but helpfully the 'cure' is on sale here too. on the face of it, you could just see this as cynical profiteering, but clearly pioneer problem solving ethic is manifesting itself again. If there's a problem, we will fix it. A commodity based society fits very well with a prosthetic sensibility (where each individual affects their environment and identity by what they can do, rather than accepting both as a result of a synthesis of various contextual factors) allowing the creation of identity within easily purchasable access. So while free choice is the underlying mantra of our epoch of capitalism, with all its pit falls, the parallel ideology of the prosthetic ideology 'I can, therefore I am" means that problems are solvable, with the addition of the right product, in the drug store these are helpfully a few aisles away from each other.
My Lasting impression of America is of a country who's deep-seated patriotism is rooted in a belief in the ability to manually and individually chose and make their society and culture. Industry, engineering and production are visibly evident and appreciated in the built environment.
It seems that the palpable paranoia (try watch American TV and avoid the adverts for criminal investigation training) towards anything or anyone who might threaten the American way of life comes from this idea that identity (cultural, social and personal) are created by prosthetic action and creation rather than an intrinsic result of a synthetic interweaving of this prosthetic sense and cultural, geological, historical etc inputs which is seen in the French idea of Terroir. The American identity is a collage of individual constructs, but as a purely human construct, anyone could (in theory) build their culture over it, performing the same action that formed the cultural identity of the USA, but the fear is that it would erase and destroy American society in the process. What this mentality forgets, and this is evident in the furore surrounding the building of a muslim community centre near the Ground Zero site, is that cultural identity is based on something much more like the French idea of Terroir. Although US history is relatively short and it is a country which has built its identity in a fairly short space of time, its way of life does not only hang on the built environment and objects that fill it.
Even though I pretend that i'm not here as a tourist, seeing NYPD police officers on the street creates a vivid sensation of nostalgia and recognition, it's impossible to avoid. Film history is infused so indelibly in to this city that you immediately feel as though you are living in cinema. This feeling is followed by the urge to replicate this cinematic form and at same time make it your own authored historical object by photograph them.
This same recognition and re-enactment seemed to be going on in Times Square and here the visual overload and barrage of light - which made me feel physically sick - creates an atmosphere and lighting effect that actually makes you feel as though you are part of the advertising. The interactive, digital display that mixes real-time footage of passer-bys in to the advert makes the next logical step in immersion.
In spite of being violently rendered in to this ad world (drawn there initially by the idea of the spectacle and tourist tick list) it was interesting that, in performing the tourist photographic ritual, tourists were, in photographing themselves in front of the screens, re-marketing the brands for free. Like the interactive advert, they were putting themselves in to the adverts also taking these adverts away with them and integrating them into their personal space and history making the marketing ever more invasive.
Sitting on the terraced seats at one end of the square there is no narrative pretence here, just pure spectacle. Here public space, historically, a place of relative freedom, the meeting place and social forum, is entirely mediated as a private one, commodity is inescapable and smothers the sense of the public space.
Most of the photographs taken in Times Square seemed to be taken on digital cameras; not creating the same physical document that analogue photography creates this seemed to alter the way in which the photographers perform as tourists. Rather than creating an object around which to centre memory, they were carrying out a double performance; the performance for the photograph and the touristic performance of re-enacting the image of infinitely photographed Times Square itself. In this city of uncanny recognition, spectacle and tourist re-enactment / experience have become entirely symbiotic and they circle endlessly around each other in the creation of innumerate non-existent images.
Intrinsic Value and Crisis in funding = Crisis in rhetoric
As a recent fine art student i was always self consciously aware of how few big exhibitions and retrospectives I visited whilst at university. But whist having had a far from under-nourished gallery experience the much talked about crisis for arts funding i am worried that the loudest and most conservative voices in the debate (Jonathan Jones in the Guardian, Steven Pollard on BBC Radio 4, the Conservative party et al.) are clouding over the genuinely exciting and vitally analytic art projects, that are supported by government funding, will suffer inordinately.
The other day I was talking to Sian R about the public funding cuts (it was fun) and she made the brilliant point that eventually it was going to end up like the highest stakes jenga game. If you keep taking these funding elements - each like a block in that fun party game - away from society and culture it will eventually topple, catastrophically. Like the game each block seems not to matter, every block is the same and insignificant, and when the prevailing rhetoric is geared to efficiency any part of culture or society can be said to be likewise the same. But when the you keep pilling up these little pieces on top there's going to be a BIG ensuing mess.
Thinking about culture / society as Jenga bricks reminded me of an idea about civic* stratification in components but as a unified whole being linked to late C19th to early C20th brick building.
At the height of enlightenment ideas about civic responsibility, each brick represented a unit of society, the citizen, built in to the structure of institution, housing and infrastructure. Although this firmly places every member of society IN THEIR PLACE, it also means that every member of society is part of that whole, by built location and symbolically. Brick buildings are not just aesthetically pleasing because of their pattern, but because, their structure broken up into units, they appear to coalesce out of mundane, small and on their own, insignificant parts.
Now this does not feel at least to be the case since the emergence of the privatised, postmodern landscape of glass and concrete. This architecture both alienates and distances the person in the street by its bulk and reflectiveness, but also merging in to a single mass, defines itself as a whole that represents nothing but the entity it houses. Each building becomes a private(iced) space which you navigate amongst any other commodity signifier.
As Zaha Hadid et al. perpetuate this other-worldly, hyper / unreal architecture it seems that this idea of symbolically building the heterogeneity and multiplicity of society into the urban landscape, is ever further forgotten. As the brick work of society is forgotten it becomes easier and easier to keep removing the rhetorically immunised 'Jenga' blocks of funding and community and adding it to the increasingly unstable peak.
The resurgence of wooden structures does nothing to exacerbate the lost symbolism in visually modular construction. In spite of its green credentials (sic), and a sense of the hand made - and therefore the human, these structure still tend to be private constructions. Latent anti-instutionanlism, refusing to disappear too, the structure of society stays focused on future architecture, and on the singular whole.
*I think this was on David Heathcote's BBC documentary on BBC Four Art Deco Icons: