Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Art Then Technology (Part 3): Hitchhiking in Flatland

Fat Bastard: end of first day of installation (2010)
(Return to Part 2)

When I was 16 I hitchhiked from Chicago to New York during what turned out to be the worst cold-snap to hit the East Coast in 90 years. That sucked. It was an ill advised decision, made on the spur of the moment, by a much different version of myself (he was a bit prettier). In addition to returning home with walking pneumonia, I had developed a very restless thumb. Perhaps because I started riding the Chicago mass transit system in middle school (which was very near Cabrini Greene), traveling among strangers in circumstances most people would find dangerous was old hat. What I discovered on that first trip was that hitchhiking was safer than the 1980s era El. Add to that I was a  bit of a risk taker as a boy. My mother has told me she was relieved that at sixteen I showed so little interest in getting a drivers licence, but she would have much preferred I had done that instead of hitching. I think hitching was a safer choice for me. As it is I didn't get my licence until I was 24. I hitchhiked instead. The reason had nothing to do with risk or driving my ma nuts, I kept at it because I really liked the people I met.

The Americans you meet hitchhiking swear a LOT more than the Americans on TV. They liked laughing about sex and farts. They eat while they drive and talk while they eat. They like talking about themselves, their money and their families; arguing about politics, and they love to brag. As a group I found them to be profoundly vulgar. But not in a bad way. Displays of affection are also vulgar, and these Americans were a warm and friendly bunch as well. No one was mean or rude, but most people we informal, casual, and why not, they were driving in their cars - that's where we go to pick our noses and talk to ourselves. If the great lesson of my apprenticeship was that the modern universe of man-made things is one of quality and refinement, the lesson of my hitchhiking trips was that the modern universe of social discourse is coarse and inelegant. Mad MaxIdiocracy, and Gataca all got the future wrong. We don't face a choice between a crude dirty place filled with cruel villains vs a sleek refined place filled with beautiful refined people. As the material would becomes increasingly refined we will are becoming increasingly less refined and vulgar. The future is going to be elegant but it will be peopled by beautiful villains. (How is it that a word for common man has come to mean something villainous?) That flattening of manners is the essence of positive social Progress.
Ben Fry, All Roads (2010)

When I moved to the end of a dirt road to apprentice to the sculptor Tom Jay everyone (even me) assumed I would have to go ahead and get my licence. As it turned out living twenty minutes drive from the nearest town made me more of a hitchhiker, not less. For one, I was really good at it. (My advice: no whiskers or sunglasses, stand in one place with your arm fully extended, look the driver in the eyes and smile.) For almost ten years I hitchhiked everywhere with an ease that even I found surprising. Looking back I know that there was another factor that contributed to me having taken so long to get my licence, and that was that Tom's Luddite ambivalence towards automotive technologies had rubbed off on me. It fed my stubborn desire to avoid car ownership. Tom drove Datsun pickup trucks the whole time I worked with him, but he dreamed of owning something even more primitive than the Deux Chevaux. "A car so simple," he would tell me, "you could manufacture new parts with a pocket knife." His ideal car would have been mad of corrugated steel and had hand-cranked windshield wiper. Tom was bigger, stronger, faster, smarter, and a metric shit ton more experienced than me, but in one small thing I could totally out do him on: I lived sans-automobile.

Like apprenticeships, hitchhiking had fallen from common use in America long before I decided to take it up (curiously Americans seem to feel it is still safe to hitch in Europe or Australia, but not in their own country). I remember as a very young boy riding in the car with my dad and asking him what the busty young woman squeezed in to faded blue jeans and a tight denim jacket was doing on the highway (in my memory she was a short Jessica Rabbit with frizzy long hair and a guitar case), my father explaining what hitch-hiking was. I remember very clearly him warning me that it was "dangerous." I never found it to be dangerous, not once, but the warnings never stopped coming. Most often the warnings come from people who have picked you up. People in the Northern states will warn you against hitching in "Down South." In the South they warn you against trying this shit "Up North." On the West Coast you are told it is not a good idea to hitch "Out East." and on the East Coast... well everyone has a cannibal story.
That was always a drag to see.

Usually hitching was a lot of fun (it is a drag to get stranded). Hitching is illegal in a lot of places but it is illegal like sodomy is illegal - most cops don't care where you put your thumb. Even so I got very good at handling myself with the cops ("What do you call a dumb angry cop?" my dad asked a friend and I before we hitched around the Midwest and up the East Coast together, "Sir" was the answer). As it turns out off duty cops are great rides. They will pick you up when no one else will (see above image), doing so gives them a chance to make sure your good people. I also found them to be great company. Who doesn't like talking about crime? I'm sure my dealings with the police was also helped by the fact that when I traveled outside the hippy haven of the Northwest Coast I kept my hair short and my dress as close to GAP-collegiate-conventional as I could manage. "A pony tail could get caught in cop car door," is how I explained it to my friends at the time.

Most of my rides were working guys who had hitch-hiked themselves back in the day (these were the guys who could always be counted on to give you a twenty and a "God bless") or wished they had (those guys were OK too, but no twenty). But I also got picked up by old ladies, priests, and even a guy with Tourette's once (that was alarming till I figured out what was going on). I got picked up by my share of guys (and a few girls) interested in sex, but flirting in a car is just like flirting in a bar. No one pawed me or even tried anything I ever found rude. I never met anyone who wanted to rob me or do me harm. In addition to the thousands of miles I must have hitch-hiked locally, I ended up thumbing my way through most of the lower 48. During those years a lot of my friends toured Europe (where they would dabble in Euro-hitchhiking), but I decided that I wanted to see as much of my own country as I could before I started traveling abroad. I wasn't being nationalistic, I was just being  contrarian.
This was the summer of 1988. My friend Robert and I never got to Dallas, After Austin we we're too anxious to get to New Orleans.

My time on the road gave me a very particular view on America. When I was going through farm country I talked with farmers, horse traders, and radical socialist (oh yeah, their EVERYWHERE). Headed through Northern California, I got rides from prison guards, pot growers, ex-cons, and house wives. In Texas I got picked up by a gay couple who bowled professionally and was called in off the side of the road by a waitress dressed like Flo who told me to eat my fill because "Darlin', you look hungry!" I shit you not at all. I rode in to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally with a morbidly obese biker named Animal. He picked me up at dusk (don't hitch in the dark) and we drove all night. He smoked pot and lied the entire time. He was like the Walter Mitty of the Hell's Angels. My very next ride was a half dozen soapy-fresh Mormon kids returning to work at Wall-Drug after temple.

For those who have never hitchhiked, it is like a series of airport conversations, except instead of two random travelers baring their souls, you have a passenger and someone who wants to talk. I heard every imaginable story because my rides were confident that anything they told me would never be repeated to anyone they knew. I heard about a lot of divorces and break ups, but I also heard nuts and bolts of people's economic triumphs and woes. I heard about struggles drugs, with faith, with small town life, whatever people were thinking about. I heard little, if no, hate.
Goofing around with my dog after coming home from a trip. I'm still dressed in GAP-collegiate-conventional hitchhiking drag.

I didn't watch TV much during those years (imagine my surprise when years later I found out Colin Powell was a black man), but I wasn't completely out of touch either. The America I knew was a place where people talked in their cars to strangers about whatever was on their minds. It was a vulgar place, full of clear thinking people who had their own ideas and their own ways of expressing them ("I'm a Christian," one off-duty cop told me, "because I like to think God knows what it feels like to take a dump"). I imagine I would have met the same sort of people if I had hitchhiked with the American'ts in Europe.

In 1995 I took what would end up being my last hitchhiked trip, from Seattle to New York, where I moved to get my MFA. I studied under a generation of artists who were dismissive if not outright hostile towards any possibility of Progress. I was told that it was a failed ideology. A Utopian story told to Modernists believed by fools and children. Robert Smithson's weariness of progress was not the exception, it was the rule (he still is). Kevin Kelly begs to differ:
It is easy to mistake progressivism for utopianism because where else does increasing and everlasting improvement point except utopia? Sadly this confuses direction with destination. The future as unsoiled technological perfection is unattainable; the future as a territory of expanding possibilities is not only attainable but also exactly the road we are on now.. Progress is real.
No one I met was talking like that in the 90s ( Ray Kurzweil who I kinda love was, but he was so utopian). More often than not, I kept my opinions about Progress to myself. Curiously, while my peers were all far more computer savvy than me (I remember one friend laughing when she realized I didn’t know how to use a mouse - I kept looking at my hand instead of the screen), they bought the narrative of historic pointlessness lock stock and bitter pill. While my deepest sympathies lie with those who reject the kind of techno-optimism Kelly represents (WWI, II, Cold War, and the rolling extinction taking place now have done a lot to damper enthusiasm for technological progress), I have always believed that the modern world is an improvement on absolutely everything that preceded it. Unfortunately I am not at all convinced that the future of exponential growth Kelly charts (although it is a much saner cover of Kurzweil’s utopian hit: I Am A Golden God) can be sustained. I would like to believe, but I am too haunted by the very real possibility of collapse Jared Diamond warns against and that Cormack McCarthy imagined in grisly detail in his book The Road. I do like Kelly's answer to those who say that we cannot go on like we are:
We don't go on as we are. We address the problems of tomorrow not with today's tools but with the tools of tomorrow. That is what we call progress.
Even so, when it comes to industrial technology I am cautiously pessimistic at best. I do however find great reason for hope in the trajectory of cultural technology.

Fat Bastard: installing in my favorite Captain America t-shirt

When I was hitchhiking everyone told me I should read Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and watch The Hitcher. I never did either. I wish someone had though to tell me to read Alexis de Tocqueville. He was America's first great hitchhiker (if only in spirit). The social leveling I became aware of in my travels is not a new trend, it’s one that Tocqueville wrote about almost 200 years ago (although he felt it was inevitable, Tocqueville was raised as an aristocrat and mourned the passing of greatness he believed the leveling represented). In his book, Tocqueville in America, the historian George Wilson Pierson explains:
The word that he used was démocratie, but by démocratie he did not mean what the English-speaking world sometimes supposed. The distinction is important. For when they translated his word into Democracy, they failed to note that what he really was predicting was equality; equality in social and economic conditions as well as well as in political: equal privileges in government, equal civil rights before the law, equal economic benefits, equal intellectual training, no classes of any kind, even disappearance of distinctions in fashion and ‘society’.
Like Kelly, Tocqueville was taken with the information technology of his day: “In the Michigan forests there is not a valley so wild, that it does not receive letters and newspapers at least once a week” he observed. “Of all the countries of the world America is the one where the movement of thought and human industry is the most continuous and swift.” The forests of Michigan were the Northwest frontier at the time of Toqueville's visit. I lived through the moment when really first rate espresso stands invaded the last old growth stands on the Olympic Peninsula (color America TAMED). What Tocqueville saw that made him believe in social leveling were technological innovations: 
America has undertaken and is finishing some immense canals. It already has more railroads than France. There isn’t any one who does not recognize the discovery of steam has added unbelievably to the strength and prosperity of the union, and has done so by facilitating rapid communications between the diverse parts of this vast body.
Hitchhiking is an elegant technology. (Thanks mom for digging out the photos)

Pierson observes that, “Had Tocqueville pursued that thought, the whole emphasis of his book would have been different” - perhaps he would have ended up writing about What Technology Wants. As it is Tocqueville’s imagination fastened onto cultural innovation and imagined the leveling trend he saw extending back through history and believed it would last another century or so - petering out around 1940. Class and distinctions in fashion have yet to wither away and may never disappear, but contemporary social life is indeed far more vulgar and crude than the formal world of French aristocracy that Tocqueville knew and loved. No matter how forward looking he might have been, a French aristocrat could not be expected to recognize the public and private loves of Robert Mapplethorp and Patty Smith as something positive. Blue bloods need something to look down on, otherwise they would be villains like the rest of us. Refined manners are their barricades and shibboleth.

The lives Smith describes in Just Kids are profoundly vulgar and deeply beautiful. Social flattening is a victory. The most fundamental and important leveling that has taken place since Democracy in America was published has developed in the 70 years since Tocqueville predicted the trend would end. Would-be-aristocrats and theocrats are right to find modern sexual mores dangerous. They know the barricades are crumbling. It is clear that equality between the sexes is a massive net gain for humanity, but not for propriety. Just like steam to our early republic the feminist revolution is inseparable from the industrial technologies as well as the social breakdown and confusion that proceeded and accompanied it. Likewise any social innovations of the next hundred years will develop in tandem with the industrial innovations growing up around us now. The rear-guard critics who attack those changes as degraded in comparison to the traditions of the past will be right, that is what social progress is. (Continue to Part 4.)
Marius Watz photo of me and the artist Zimoun. I was probably saying something vulgar.

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