In Vincent Gallo’s 2003 film The Brown Bunny, a motorcyclist named Bud (portrayed by Gallo himself) embarks on a solo cross-country road trip to his next race stop. As the film unfolds, it becomes clear that the object is not really Bud’s racing at all, but rather his interior ruminations on a lost love interest, Daisy. Gallo positions us perfectly for the intake of this cogitation through the use of a single element: driving. The majority of the film consists of long, drawn-out driving scenes designed to portray the experience as close to real-time as possible. These are scenes that test the experiential capacity of its audience; Bud’s gaze often seemingly transfixed on something incorporeal, as our eyes scan over open roads, subdivisions, and acquaintances in passing.
In many ways, the meditative qualities of longing encapsulated so beautifully in Gallo’s film can be seen as a kind of allegory of contemporary America. In the inevitable context of socioeconomic evolution, driving becomes a quintessential component to understanding this vast, constitutive land; the cadence and mobility of the act giving rise to a transcendental blurring of faces, names, and places. We like to think of ourselves as a cosmopolitan and essentially bullet-proof people, but behind the wheel of a vehicle, the consequences of modernity are made real again. Fatigue, short-term memory loss, and jet-lag are the residual tokens of our physical and metaphorical travels; sobering reminders of our mortality and the true effects modernity has had on the human psyche. I am reminded of this as I hold a copy of Wake Up, We’re Here in my hands, a 110-page hardcover photo book. The authors, a local photography collective comprising of eight individuals (AJ Feducia, Chad McGuire, Chris Rohrer, John Hook, Samantha Hook, Isabella Hook, Kara Akayima, and Vincent Ricafort) also centered their project around a cross-country drive. However, unlike Gallo’s character Bud, their objectives bore a means to an end: the production of a succinct, hallucinatory, image-dialogue of America.
From the annals of literary history, Jean Baudrillard, too, lends us his thoughts on the act of driving in his cultural critique of the great land of opportunity simply entitled, America. “Driving is a spectacular form of amnesia,” he pontificates. “Everything is to be discovered, everything to be obliterated.” His is a paradigm of apocalyptic democracy, in which true individualism is surrendered to the impetuous expansion of industry and economy. Incidentally, many of the images in Wake Up, We’re Here resemble the haunting black and white ones in Baudrillard’s reality. A desolate snapshot of an open desert expanse welcomes us into this world; just as much an invitation to advance as it is a note of futility.
The sight of this very image reborn in Wake Up, We’re Here evokes memories of coming across the work of Francis Alÿs for the first time in 2010. At the time, his retrospective, A Story of Deception was debuting at the TATE Modern in London. The video piece from which the larger exhibition took its name depicted a desolate road in Patagonia – in essence not unlike the ones in America or Wake Up, We’re Here – engulfed in a vapory emission of heat waves. As the camera advanced through the mirage-like emission of Alÿs’ orchestration – the quivering film of heat subsiding and regenerating almost instantaneously – the aberrant foreboding of this very act of perennial recurrence as cultural and historical microcosm became an imminent possibility. At that moment, Alÿs’ road became for me, an allegory of this cautionary tale; of society fated to exist in a “perpetual present,” as put by Baudrillard. In both “texts,” such a prospect is juxtaposed only by the sight of a sterile highway structure. What does it mean to drive here? I am left to wonder: What is this act if not a metonymy for western society’s collective advance toward the uncertain and dizzying horizon of contemporaneity?
Grand introspections aside, I am inclined to say that Wake Up, We’re Here isn’t necessarily a dark or even particularly profound book by intention. No, these pages have to them a kind of veracity that I can’t quite explain. Scattered in between images of silly, weightless experience (largely of the photographers themselves) are the forgotten moments of unexceptional quotidian life. A nameless woman, about 50 years of age, is asleep in the passenger seat of a parked car at Walmart. Road-work personnel attend to a flipped car on the side of a highway. Two strangers share a kiss under the evening sky. But who are we to declare these moments insubstantial? Georges Perec in 1973 wrote on the idea of what he called the “infraordinary,” mundane experiences that function collectively like the symbiosis of found fabrics in a patchwork quilt. According to Perec, it is precisely these instances of “unexceptional” occurrences that compose our larger existences, thus rightfully embodying the most importance. In the shadow of this sentiment, the familiar sight of stars that return every night to fulfill their promises of illuminating the Midwestern night sky seems especially sanctioned; the supreme beauty in the normalcy of the affair heightened. I finish flipping through the book in what seems like a single breath, held not out of volition but necessity.
________________________________________________ ARTiculations is a blog on culture and the arts by Carolyn Mirante for FLUX Hawaii. Carolyn is a Honolulu-based art critic and Owner/Director of the Gallery of Hawaii Artists (GoHA), an alternative exhibition space dedicated to the contemporary arts in Hawai’ i.