Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Alone in Public Life

This is part two of a four-part photo essay from my recent visit to San Francisco atrium hotels. These notes reflect some of my amblings while researching a book on omnitopia.

The atrium hotel complex conflates disparate environments -- lodging, commerce, entertainment, tourism -- gathering large numbers of people into an coherent continuum. The milling, chatting, laughing amalgamation resembles the ancient agora, a site for public life. What interests me most, though, are moments of isolation, when an individual faces the vast interior alone.

In many ways, this project is inspired by Edward Hopper's grim depictions of modern life, people waiting in all-hours cafes, lost in their own thoughts in motel rooms, standing alone at gas stations. The bright and vibrant colors of contemporary life seem muted somehow. And in turn they mute us.

In these waiting places, many of us practice technologies of anticipatory disengagement. We use mobile phones, iPods, and other aural enclaves to augment other acceptable ways to isolate ourselves. Yet I think that these gaping interiors alone contribute to our experiences of isolation. Even when we chat among friends, sipping Starbucks in a hotel lobby or grabbing a snack in a mall, each of us alone occasionally looks upward toward the open spaces of the atrium and feels somewhat smaller than we are.

Outside the privileged enclave, other individuals carry their worlds with them, not in iPods or mobile phones but in shopping carts. Here the frontiers of omnitopia reassert themselves, while inside the atrium the world seems endless.

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