Occasionally, in our quest to find placeness and in our meager attempts to convey its properties and principles, we resort to presenting the opposite: placelessness. We have mentioned (or is it ranted?) about housing developments, overly dense urban space, art misplaced and other place-lacking elements of our daily lives. But we have seen, on-screen, the most placeless of the placeless.
I don’t know about your area, but since our local broadcast television went digital we now have many additional, filler channels that are new to us. By and large, they are even greater time-wasters than the original programming. The absolutely most bizarre and frightening is the traffic station Tango Traffic, which offers a “program” it calls “Jams & Cams.” This 24-hour feed of traffic video cameras attached to light poles on highways, interstates, and major roads shows some of the most placeless sites ever created by humans. These broadcast images are of linear swaths that are horrifyingly empty stretches of pavement, mostly treeless, barren and devoid of life (except for cars and trucks). O, what we have wrought, and here it is being shown on TV, 24/7. Interspersed with the live-cam pictures are occasional graphics thrown in: digital re-creations of networks of roadways with colorful phosphorescent green cars riding through verdant fields dotted with attractive primary-colored signage, much like a child’s day-care center motif. Then it returns to the real views of monotone asphalt and mind-numbing cattle chutes, tiered layers of oil-stained grayness framed by sickly green-coated steel superstructures. The night views are of darkness with flickering lights on approach and in retreat, every view like the dark alleys we were taught to avoid.
All the while that these placeless places are flashing by like a brainwashing drip into our eyes and minds – eye-in-the-sky views of one horrific location after another in rapid succession – there is a rolling text feed below the main screen that gives route names and numbers followed by delays in minutes, very often in high double digits. Aside from how dismal the images are, the text messages come in with a one-two punch to reconfirm the punishment of moving through and around these byways – and tossed in are some accompanying shots of logjams, ramps, overpasses, a broken-down car here, an accident there. The clips from traffic cams are 10 seconds of motion and, despite the identifier of location in some cryptic militaristic abbreviation of an intersection that requires 10 seconds to decipher, both are hard to read. As we view the abbreviated tags of the video cameras, our tendency is to try for some sort of recognition: first, of the site name (good luck on that); and then of the intersection itself, by sight. However, if by chance, you figure out what the image is supposed to represent, you still can’t read the visual relationship of two streets that are familiar to you since there is nothing recognizable. Every street looks the same, all are without identifiable attributes; it can’t be just the camera. These are nightmare images, places without landmarks, or familiarity, or uniqueness. Every angle seems wrong and every place seems eerily dead. It is like some lost footage from The Twilight Zone of an apocalyptic world of nothing but endless paved roads.
Alas, it is sadly accurate. These nowhere zones have become more real to people on a daily basis than the places that they connect. And here they are, aired for our viewing pleasure. In some way, in a better universe, these images would be a wake-up call for putting an end to the madness, the rape of our environment for car-dependence. It would show us the error of our ways: the absurd number of vehicles, the structures required to carry them (and they keep getting larger and larger), the massive traffic jams, intolerable delays (just saw one for 112 minutes!), the ugly factor and the placelessness. This lifestyle not only creates placelessness by having the point be the commute to and fro, undermining a sense of place; but also, creates more empty spaces of roadways that are, as we see on-screen, without place. Watch your traffic channel, it may open your eyes.