Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Rainbow

I've been taking the bus home every day across Lake Washington, along the curvilinear form of the Evergreen Point Bridge. It floats on pontoons for most of its span, and you spend most of the ride seeming to skim the surface, gray water meeting gray skies.

The sun barely peeks out from the light rain, and suddenly a rainbow is refracted over Laurelhurst. You see the hilly neighborhood through it, and the paint on each house is slightly modified by some point on the natural spectrum.

It is in these fleeting occasions, when the shape of the city is suddenly, briefly transformed, that you come to look on a place as you never perceived it before. Through the veil, something you see every day explodes with new life. Suddenly, minute details become obvious-- an A-frame on a hillside, a row of poplar trees-- and every time you pass by them now, you notice them. The experience of a place becomes permanently altered by a single moment. The rainbow isn't just an optical effect. It is a catalyst of perceptive transformation.

When I see somewhere for the first time, I automatically transfix it my mind as the "natural" appearance of a place. It is my first clear vision of what that place is. Maybe it will change gradually and imperceptibly. Maybe it will change overnight, suddenly destroyed. But either way, when we notice it again, after an absence, we are staring at the remnants of what was there before. Maybe it was someplace you cherished-- it could have been the spot where you had your first kiss, the backyard where you lost your first tooth. When we look back on a place, it is all caught up in nostalgia and sentiment.

If we see that place over and over again, our picture of it conforms to its new reality. That old image is contorted until it is nothing but a Vaseline-smeared trace of what it once was. When we recall it, we see flickers of light, but it ultimately recedes back into darkness.

My old preschool was torn down sometime in the past several years, and the last time I was back in my ville natale, I walked down the gravel alley that ran behind the lot where it once stood. For the first time in 20 years, I saw a power line along the alley disappear behind a huge oak tree. When I last saw it, I was standing in a pea gravel yard in a T-shirt, and shorts, staring up at the adult world, at the dusty Impalas and Caprice Classics the teachers drove, their grilles at eye level. The shade of the oak tree marked the end of the known world. Beyond, was a sun-dappled yard I would never set foot in.

Some day, I'd like to go to all the places I've ever inhabited, seeing what's changed, what's remained static. Having examined the scope of my life through the places I've lived, I can say I saw the timeline of my life made manifest in space. I can say who I was and who I am. When I come back to the place where I live now, I will see that a crack in the paint has appeared, and a cobwebbed bookshelf has been cleaned, new carpeting put down. But the light that hits the kitchen on wintry Sunday mornings will remain.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Color Video

I was sent a video of a lazy Sunday afternoon in Germany, 1937: carnival rides and wheat fields, men drinking beer at the picnic table, couples waltzing outdoors.

We've all seen the images of National Socialism in black and white: the videos of Hitler's speeches before lit torches, Leni Riefenstahl's rapturous shots of parades crossing the Brandenburg Gate.

But it was only when I saw them in color that they really took on a human shape. The swastika flag banners billow in the wind as buses cross in front of them. Those ordinary people heiling cease to look like fascist automatons, and start to look like the Midwesterners I grew up with. It is in this color-soaked reality in real time that fascism becomes apparent for what it is: an ideology that ordinary people willingly took into their hearts. While we've all been told that the potential for evil lies within all of us, it takes a striking image for us to really feel that. Roland Barthes said that the existence of slavery was never real to him until he saw a snapshot of a slave market. There is no veil of history, there is only shocking immediacy.

You don't even necessarily have to see the evidence of a historical event to feel the reality of it in a video artifact. Seang Dy sings in the wedding, a warbling voice from a lost world. You stare into the faces of dozens of people who were almost certainly murdered a few years later. They sip their champagne, blissfully unaware of their fates.

The Internet makes it so much easier to sort through odd pieces of audio and video from other worlds: Syrian pop music, North Korean propaganda, Nigerian cinema, old photos of a long-dead '80s Lower East Side Bohemia, home movies from Mississippi in the '50s. These fragments and ephemera-- memories of individual people, memories of families, memories of towns, memories of whole cultures-- have found some kind of new life, or at least a stay on their execution, on the web.

You find these things through links from websites, links from friends, links from other videos, links from Google searches, links from Youtube searches, intentional searches, accidental searches, misspellings, serendipity. You wade through countless awful viral videos and talentless hacks' terrible covers of songs you like and trollish comments to find gems scattered in the trash heap of the collective consciousness.

I've always had that tendency to pore through the volumes of cultural history, hunting down the weird, the arcane, the baffling, and the shocking. I don't especially care about most new books that come out, I have no desire to keep up with the latest raved-about writer--  all I wanna do is find something transcendent. Fuck Jonathan Safran Foer and Dave Eggers. I wanna read about people selling human body parts on the Russian steppes during the reign of Czar Nicholas I. Each found piece of media isn't just a pop song or a snapshot. It's a portal to another world, another set of lives, another set of mores, a radically different experience connected to you by a thin thread of common humanity.

It follows then, that our cultures, our lives, our memories have the potential to leave this kind of imprint after they're gone, with wildly different effects on different people. When someone finds a picture of me in a box in 50 years, what will they see? What meanings, what connections lie in the notes I scribble on bookmarks? And at what date will the last vestige of my being be an unremembered image?