Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The New New Topographics.....Nostalgia for the Suburban

So, do we want to move back to the suburbs or not? Because I've been getting mixed signals lately, and I'm trying to think through what might or might not be the opening salvo in a renaissance of suburban longing (if there has already been a full-blown renaissance in suburban longing, please someone fill me in).

Arcade Fire's 2010 widely acclaimed album The Suburbs pines for an idyllic return to the simplicity of low expectations, wide lawns, and strip malls. I cannot, for the life of me, figure out if they're being serious or not. But I thought it might be interesting to consider the album next to the 1975 photography exhibition "New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape," if only because it takes as its subject the very scenes of 1970's suburban life that Arcade Fire sings so moonily about (incidentally, a new collection of essays to be published by the U of C Press in February reconsiders the show, so I'm trying to get my shots in here quickly)

The images in "New Topographics" portrayed trailer parks, decrepit factories in the exurbs, blank urban spaces, and parking lots. Though it would eventually become one of the most influential bodies of landscape photography in history, the show flopped when it first appeared. The images marked a major departure from previous modes of photography in their simple descriptions of scenes. They did not seem to overtly judge, and yet there was an undeniable snarkiness to the pictures. Audiences seemed not to "get it." It didn't help that the Eastman House was featuring the work of university-trained photographers--a maligned crop of academic practitioners that allegedly lacked the natural talent thought to be necessary for authentic picture-making.My juxtaposition of "New Topographics" with Arcade Fire's 2010 album The Suburbs is a bit tongue in cheek, though I still really can't tell if the group is actually pining for the suburbs or not. I can't tell who is being sincere and who is being ironic. Is Arcade Fire genuinely longing for the suburbs, or are they satirizing the desire for convertibles and freshly paved roads? Are the photographers in "New Topographics" genuinely trying to do documentary work, or does their rendering of empty "man-altered" landscapes nakedly satirize or criticize the spaces they depict?

I really don't know. I just wanted to type a few words about both, regardless...

1 comment:

  1. I've been (indirectly) thinking about this a lot lately:

    1. I think it's important to note that with 1980 more than 30 years past, we're starting to see the transition from irony to nostalgia. There's been a definite shift from laughing at the 80s to embracing them. I do think "The Suburbs" is meant as a love letter, but after making fun of something for so long, it's hard not to be suspicious. Then again, maybe "love letter" is simplifying it too much because there sure is a lot of resignation, longing, and loss going on in that album.

    2. Over Christmas I was watching a movie with my dad called "Please Give." The premise of the movie is unrelated to this discussion, but in the movie there's a couple who happen to be raising their kids in NYC. While watching, my dad turns to me and asks: "do you ever wish you grew up in the city?" Initially, I found myself unable to separate my present self (who both loves and lives in the city) with my past self (who both loved and lived in the suburbs). Unable to come up with anything, I finally just said "I don't know; I suppose I've never really thought about it." And it's true, I'd always assumed my childhood could not have been otherwise because I had never considered the number of decisions that went into determining when, where, and how I would grow up. After thinking about it and recalling that urban areas in the 80s were largely cesspools of crime, violence, and filth, it would be difficult for me to say growing up in the suburbs sucked. And it didn't. Regardless of what I think now, child Tyler had a great time. So, re: should we move back, I think those sentiments are largely the result of a time and not of a place. In other words, "The Suburbs" is a longing not for the suburbs, but for childhood (which happened to be in the suburbs). Put simply: we can't move back.

    3. Finally, I've been thinking about our current generational plight and I keep coming back to Althusser and his precious interpellation. What initially seemed so undesirable, now seems rather appealing. What post-grad wouldn't kill to be hailed right now. Perhaps one of the things "The Suburbs" might be tapping into is that desire for interpellation. Pitchfork definitely hints at this: "Soul-sucking work was at least once a dependably secure and profitable enterprise. Now what do we do?" And I think the Village Voice makes an interesting case as well:

    What did our parents do to us?