A year ago I did a video project together with my ‘associate’ Oskar Lindström about the phenomenon Suburbia. As point of departure we took a text by Robert Smithson about the construction of Passaic, a suburb of New Jersey, a landscape he describes in terms of monuments.
Our fascination for the text derived from the fact that it describes Suburbia in beautiful poetic terms as a place completely deprived of history and identity, a shell, a plastic place. Or, as Gertrude Stein is reported to have said when she visited Oakland, California: ‘There is no there there’*. A short quote from the article:
But the suburbs exist without a rational past and without the “big events” of history. Oh, maybe there are a few statues, and a couple of curios, but no past – just what passes for a future. A utopia minus a bottom, a place where the machines are idle, and the sun has turned to glass, and a place where the Passaic Concrete Plant (253 River Drive) does a good business in STONE, BITUMINOUS, SAND and CONCRETE.
It is an issue I discussed in this post about Jeanne van Heeswijk, who takes up this subject in the Blue House project. Van Heeswijk attempts to actively create a history and identity in IJburg (near Amsterdam) in cooperation with inhabitants. Other great examples of ‘suburban critique’ can be found in films such as Blue velvet and, of course, American Beauty:
Look at me, jerking off in the shower, this will be the high point of my day; it’s all downhill from here.
which, I guess describes the failing of Suburbia better than anything.
But why be critical at all? What if Suburbia is heaven instead of hell? Where people barbecue all day, families have three cars and a green lawn, where everyone is openly promiscuous and joyfully watches reality soaps and breakfast shows on television! I recall the hideously positive photographs by Bill Owens who photographed Suburbia in the seventies. The photos where complemented by quotes from the people in the picture such as this one:
Who on earth can argue with that! It is a metaphor for life, stripped down to its bare essentials: friends, money and keeping food. I sound a bit cynical perhaps, but I’m merely trying to point out that opinions can differ regarding the quality of life in suburbia. After all cynical and intellectual critique I had seen and read, it was such an immense joy to see these happy photographs. And what could possibly be wrong with a good barbecue?!
* taken from Halvar Haugen, Momentum04 catalogue