Travelling at the Speed of Night: 65 mphby Valerie Jaffe
With this observation, the landscape historian John Brinckerhoff Jackson bestowed scholarly legitimacy on the mystique of the open road, already well-memorialized in American art and culture. I was eager to pay homage to that mystique when I boarded the high-seated, racing-striped Atlas cruiser that was the main medium for 65mph, a performance-cum-exhibit-cum-bus tour conceived, created, and sponsored by a Brooklyn-based art collaborative called e-Xplo.
65mph consists of a nighttime bus trip along a pre-planned route over outer borough highways, accompanied by a recorded soundtrack of synthesized and “found” sound. Last fall, e-Xplo conducted a similar trip through the industrial landscapes of Greenpoint and Maspeth, entitled Dencity. I was sold on these projects before I attended one; whatever the execution, the conception necessarily requires both the artists and their audience to look hard at oft-neglected things, to analyze and aestheticize them. The landscape of New York, with its inscrutable combination of architectural triumphs and functional eyesores that nonetheless provide important clues to the more hidden workings of the city’s economy and society, is an inexhaustible source of mental entertainment and artistic pleasure. All anyone needs to do is look.
65mph fulfills the promise of its laudable premise. As visual and performance art, it is highly topical, highly participatory, and even quite moving. The only weak link was, at times, the soundtrack. Composed of electronic scratches, squawks, space bubbles, flowing water, what might have been stylized bird calls, tremulous bass, rumblings, and radiating rhythm, with the occasional voice-over, the entire composition was weighted heavily toward synthetic disturbance and doom. The portions of it that might have been gathered from the environment sounded as if they might have been doctored, if not constructed outright. As a whole, the visual portion of the tour did not feel as organic as might have been hoped; rather than aiming to augment the narrative that the changing landscape provided, it sought to impose a mood, and that mood was often tiresomely vague, restless, and dark. But it is easy to be generous about this shortcoming. After all, the timing of a vehicular trip along New York highways can never be planned for with any exactitude, and designing a soundtrack that varied in time with the varying environments of the trip is, I can only presume, simply not possible. And the soundtrack did have its moments, most spectacularly when its rhythms achieved imperfect but transcendent communion with the intervals at which suspension cables flew by as we crossed the Verrazano bridge. Most impressive of all, perhaps, are the primal, specious auditory-visual connections the mind will draw given a little rhythm and a little motion—when, say, a traffic light changes to green or the bus emerges from a tunnel, and one is certain one heard a corresponding thump or crescendo in the soundtrack. Most likely, that thump or crescendo did not happen. But music and road trips have an affinity that the senses understand better than the cognitive mind.
The meat of 65mph is in its visual component, and the journey does not disappoint. I took the tour on the night of Friday the 25th of May, which matters. After a gray, heavy-aired day, there is a light misting of rain falling for much of the night; the sky is unusually dark, and brick, concrete, and tar are all uncommonly luminescent. I have described the tour bus above; it is of a size and design that reference both the intra-city sightseeing bus and the Greyhound Americruiser, the former an object kitschy enough to have ample avant-garde credibility, and the latter a more serious, sorrowful, and revered part of American travel culture. Our driver’s name is Daniel, and the lights are out for the duration of the trip. We have to first move away from our departure point of Wythe Avenue, within gawking distance of the lit-up-like-Christmas Williamsburg Bridge, and this requires driving southwest on through an ominous world of loading docks, hollowed-out buildings, and, for whatever reason, a startling number of sugar refineries. Between the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the Manhattan Bridge, the environment begins to feel more welcoming, as self-storage facilities, the only buildings in such areas that explain their purpose clearly to vehicle-bound passers-by, begin to proliferate. We pass the Two Bridges, in all celestial Castor-and-Pollux splendor, and then head west on Route 278, toward the Verrazano Bridge. Now, the tour, which will continue down to Staten Island before the return trip begins, begins to live up to its name, as the bus picks up speed and the landscape becomes distinctively that of the highway, the place where we all learn to love and tread softly around the number 65.
But the breed of highway that winds through the urban centers of the Eastern seaboard is a creature barely comparable to the highway of open vistas, unfettered speed, and summer mirages that has such a solid place in our national mythology. The great interstate highway is the site of either leisure or work, and it constitutes a hermetic space that contains only itself, the natural world, and all the accoutrements that serve the traveler’s convenience and comfort: exit signs so that we know where we are going, mileage markers so that we know and wonder at where we have been, golden arches or Waffle House logos large enough that we can see them from a sufficient distance to consider whether or not we are hungry well in advance of the point when the decision needs to be made. But the urban highway is used primarily by commuters, by those poor souls in the thankless shadow zone between leisure and work, and, while there are plenty of signs telling the driver where to go, the pleasures of sustenance and rest are not provided for on these roads. Most significantly, the driver on the urban highway has the city in view. She is constantly forced to compare her speed and trajectory to those of the people moving about in the residential, commercial, and industrial areas that are both very close by and completely inaccessible.
The idiosyncrasies of the urban highway are crucial to the experience of 65mph. Early in the soundtrack, we hear a traffic report, a reminder that a trip of this sort is an obstacle course, the navigation of which demands alertness and scientific planning. But the landscape is full of distractions that cannot be beneficial to that process. There are, of course, billboards, daring us to pass them at maximum speed. Near the exits to Manhattan, the things they advertise are intangible and fundamentally urban, internet service providers, cell phones, the History Channel. As we get deeper into Brooklyn, though, the focus changes to SUVs, John Deere, a Japanese steakhouse, the upcoming film Evolution. In Bay Ridge, the large advertisement painted on the side of the building, perhaps the most distinctive collateral of the urban highway, is a familiar sight, and the things they advertise—personal injury lawyers, divorce lawyers, cement mixers, used police cars on auction—are apt to throw a traveler into great confusion about what demographic, exactly, these advertisers think she occupies.
But even more distracting to the urban highway driver than the structures that were erected for her eyes are those that were not. Sometimes the highway runs alongside and on a level with the ordinary streets; more often, it runs alongside and above them, so that the traveler is at level with the second or third story of the buildings she passes. This combination of speed and height creates a futuristic impression, and, indeed, streaking along these elevated roads, one does sometimes feel like a misunderstood visitor from a place no one will acknowledge. Just off the fairly barren highway, small groceries advertise their most refreshing wares with familiar logos; the neon illustrations attached to adult video stores undulate in patterns completely inexplicable when one passes at such a high speed; pedestrians darting here and there exude a freedom that the driver, hemmed by frantic or stationary traffic, can only dream about. The highway driver might be struck by a sudden urge to slow down and enter this world, so close that she can identify the television shows playing within its residential windows, but at any given moment she probably does not have that option. By the time she reaches the next exit, the world that beckoned before is likely to be already very far behind her. The whole experience is not so different from lingering at the counter in a diner at 8 a.m., nursing a black coffee and a tuna melt and trying to read Gravity’s Rainbow, only to end up staring wistfully at the red-cheeked families who crowd into booths and order blueberry pancakes.
This sense of alienation, from a world that is slower than you, lower than you, and yet appears so much more liberated than you, is much of what makes 65mph powerful. And it sets the passenger up for the climaxes of the trip, the moments when that alienation is shattered or transcended. This occurs a few times, I think: when the bus crosses into Staten Island, and the repeated elements that go into constructing the Verrazano Bridge, along with the vast expanse of dark water over which it hangs, together create an environment vacant, vast, and peaceful enough to accommodate and even complement highway speeds; when the massive cruiser slows down to school-bus-speed to pull off onto a sleeping Staten Island residential street, creating an interlude of comic relief lasting just as long as it takes to transfer to the parallel stretch of highway for the return trip; and when the highway runs beneath ground level, allowing the passenger to relish the privacy of the close and resonant walls alongside the bus and to study the urban landscape from below, with all the detached, incognito glee of a crafty sewer rat.
65mph takes just about an hour to complete. As I slowly walked away from the bus, I had to think hard about my pace before I could take it for granted once again.
More information about e-Xplo and its projects is available at www.e-xplo.org.