“If you can explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” – Einstein
This past week, I returned from a “suuuper fantastico” vacation in Barthelona (insert prolonged sigh of jealousy here). Spain, as always, induces decadent desires for siestas, sangria, and mounds of manchego. It also never ceases to indulge me in both a sense of serene content and an invigorating curiosity; even the fluid transitions from an impromptu café con leche to stimulus overload at Gaudi’s Park Guell to 6am dance marathons serve as a reminder of the city’s perfected pace of life. And since my last jaunt in the country in 2007, I am quite happy to report that Americans are no longer detested as the selfish rabble-rousers of the world.
During the latter portion of my trip, my wonderful host and I visited one of Barcelona’s lesser-known (or less touristy) cultural institutions called the CCCB for an exhibit entitled, “Atopia: Art and City in the 21st Century.”
The exhibit began with a ~10 minute video documenting the promises and perils of the last decade. As you can imagine, it’s not the most uplifting film. Reels of war, natural disaster, suicide bombing, revolution and social protest swirl in and out of the screen, alongside the occasional smile-inducing Free Willy montage (probably to ensure full-on depression does not set in completely). Aptly, around 2007, the images and footage switch from CNN and BBC coverage to a slew of YouTube clips, include Hussein’s decapitation and Guantanamo torture scenes. The film ends with the final images dissolving into black, only to loop back to “200o” before the viewer has a chance to wipe off that “Holy Shit, we’re screwed” look, or at least breath out.
The rest of the exhibit carries the film’s weight, transposing the viewer from a collection of pieces themed “Man and the City” to another grouped “Man without the City.” Walking through the various spaces, I got the feeling of being slowly stripped down as the comforts and familiarities of urban life decay, dissolve and disappear:
Both the art and the introductory film left me in a deafening stupor. I had just viewed some 30+ interpretations of modern life and don’t think I have ever been as confused about the meaning of our times, or lack thereof. Perhaps that was the intent of the exhibit — to give the viewer a sensation of pure dissociation, the feeling of suddenly plummeting into an abyss while your stomach remains suspended above. Yet to construct such a feeling, the curator had to rely on some very concrete tools to ground the viewer in his / her vision. These tools could include the decade, the city and even the museum walls. Most interesting to me is that the film suspends us in a decade, an arbitrary time period society either idealizes with themed parties and VH1 series or bemoans with groans of “no longer my problem.” Looking back at the last decade, what better mechanism of hope and cope do we have aside from pushing the absurdities of 2000-2009 into just that — a decade we can acknowledge, move beyond and forget.
Perhaps the tension of modernity is best exemplified by my inability to fully grasp the exhibit’s meaning and my enduring desire to understand what I witnessed. As we increasingly serve as dart boards for information — with millions of real-time updates on the mundane and the crucial available each day — it is only natural that we try to make sense of it all. And when the absurdities don’t, or can’t, fit into any form of accepted understanding, we treat is an anomaly and move on.
Don’t interpret the above musing as a fully cooked philosophy. As context (a basic premise for understanding), the idea started brewing during my 12 hours of travel back to the U.S. when reading a NYT article halfway between the UK and Iceland (interrupted by a few volcanic jolts from the cloud below). Jon Gertner’s piece, entitled “The Rise and Fall of the GDP”, discusses the charge of some very smart economists to infuse the most oft-cited statistic of economic progress with indicators of human progress. Not only do we continuously seek ways to understand the past and present, we also construct (and improve upon) tools to understand what’s to come. Ideally, the stat would serve as a looking-glass into a future we may or may not like to see. Hopefully we won’t get too scared to build a working tool, at minimum in the case of the beloved statistic.