Now Boarding

Denver International Airport, baggage claim artwork

This originally appeared in the Flying High issue of MUSEUM Magazine.

Think of a harbour. It is a loud, messy human space. Boats rock, crash and leak. The air is acrid with oil and sea stink. Containers hoisted onto barges by enormous cranes, seabirds squawking overhead, foghorns. You can feel the movement of people, goods and capital around you. The abstract flows that connect the world are tactile and immediate here. You can see, hear and smell them. Even the labour is knowable: maritime workers and seamen working to pilot boats and move crates, all bound together by the fact that they donate enormous stretches of their lives to the ocean.

An airport is not like this. An airport is a sterilised, liminal space; removed of all unnecessary phenomena and reduced to a purely transitional zone. The background processes — luggage transfer, the refueling of planes, arcane and unknowable security operations — are conducted behind white walls. Modern terminals are set up like sprawling shopping malls attuned to an impenetrable corporate logic. They are places for focused waiting.

But they are also places of enormous human drama. Everyone in an airport is in a state of personal flux. They are either going somewhere, or returning from there. Farewells and reunions happen every minute. They are like miniature cities with a constantly changing population, bound by a shared mythology and folklore. They are bus stops writ large; in-between spaces that are consciously designed not to possess any extraordinary character by themselves, but which accrue more potent meanings merely by being places where people congregate.

John Koenig, author of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a compendium of fictional words that set the limits of contemporary ennui, coined the word ’onism’, meaning “the frustration of being stuck in just one body, that inhabits only one place at one time”. He writes about the purest expression of this feeling: standing in front of the departures board at an airport, watching the display of destinations you will never travel to and could not possibly hope to. We live in a time where cheap and readily available air travel means that we can go anywhere in the world and experience anything, but we still don’t — and that is jarring to the spirit. Our geographic limitations are no longer technological. They are economic, personal and spiritual.

Seneca, the Stoic philosopher and humourist, understood the crippling feeling of potentiality inherent in airports, two thousand years before they existed. He wrote, in his moral letters to Lucilius:

Do you suppose that you alone have had this experience? Are you surprised, as if it were a novelty, that after such long travel and so many changes of scene you have not been able to shake off the gloom and heaviness of your mind? You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate. Though you may cross vast spaces of sea, your faults will follow you whithersoever you travel.”

This feeling of detachment and placelessness is only amplified in a world where any point on the globe is no more than a day’s travel away. To move, and move broadly, is seen as a necessary catharsis. When we can’t, we feel the limit is ourselves.

I did not set foot into an airport until I was fourteen years old. I had travelled very little prior to that — always by car — and these often spontaneous trips lacked the formalism of an cross-contintal journey. My sense of geography and direction was stunted: I knew where these places I travelled were in theory, but had no real sense of directionality or purpose to my movements. The east coast of New South Wales, being uniform in its appearance, people and culture, felt clearly bounded in my mind. It was not travelling to me. Instead, I felt I was moving laterally within a phenomenological space with which I was already intimately familiar.

Gertrude Stein wrote in her meditation on American spatial identity Geographical History of America that travel by flight is far different to travel by automobile, in ways that are not immediately apparent. For a traveller by car, she writes, the journey is complete once the traveller has moved from point A to point B. This is because there is a linearity to the journey: objects of interest present themselves, then recede into the horizon. For someone in an aeroplane, looking down at the landscape and oceans below in their totality, the trip is complete at any given moment. The changes in the world when you are looking down from above are as much shifts in consciousness as they are geographic.

She wrote that from the sky, the political realities of the world become more distinct. The artificiality of national and provincial borders, and what they mean for the people below, become readily apparent. Flying over Europe, she says, one becomes aware of the realities of European history; the jagged borders indicative of centuries of dynastic conflict and feudal warfare. In the U.S., by contrast, she speaks of the straight lines of the American states, of jurisdictions carved systematically out of the earth as part of a great and fateful utopian project. Flight grants us a perspective on what it means to live in society that driving cannot. What of an airport, then? It exists between both spaces.

So when I first stepped into an airport — and then, in turn, an aeroplane — at fourteen, I experienced that feeling of profound displacement. This was travel, this is what it meant to move between clearly delineated places. Had I flown to the places I had once travelled to by car, had I sat waiting in an airport terminal to make the short journey by air to these landmarks of my childhood, had I watched the landscape of the Australian east coast form and unform from the window of an aeroplane, I would finally have known these places as distinct, unique zones of meaning.

Like Stein I once flew over parts of the American landscape that I once travelled by bus. The lush green highway forests of Georgia, which seem infinite from the ground, feel like art from the sky, laid by an unseen hand.

The first airports were not really airports as we understand them. Aerodromes, as they were called, were gathering places for people to watch the air shows which had become popular in the early 20th century. Affordable passenger flight was a pipedream, and aeroplanes were a miraculous spectacle that they could not participate in. In many nations, the first ‘real’ airports were adapted from military hangars that lay dormant after the First World War. Waiting rooms were added, like small bus terminals, for passengers to wait in while their planes queued up on single runways.

But as air travel became the primary means of moving between continents, the size and function of airports needed to evolve too. Parallel to the increasingly demanding functional requirements of airports, the emotional and experiental needs of passengers also became more demanding. Air travel and its adjacent experiences are stressful and unpleasant by their very nature. How could airports possibly solve both regulatory and interpersonal problems?

Mexican architect Tatiana Bilboa once said that her father told her that the work of an architect is essentially problem-solving. For an airport, these are small human problems extrapolated onto a grand, international scale. For years the airport rendered itself as a sterile doctor’s office, the image of safety and predictability. The simple circular layouts of the design moved stressed travellers along a fixed path from which they could not deviate until they arrived at their boarding gate. It is an experience that is unashamedly controlled, and that is what we expect.

But the world which emerged on September 11 finds its locus in airports. Since then, the initial childlike wonder that accompanied the miraculous birth of human flight has dissipated entirely, replaced with a stern sense of pragmatism and solemn duty. Airport security feels like a central pylon from which the rest of the security state grows like electrical tendrils, an original expression of paranoia that the rest of society has come to emulate.

There is a rosy vision of flight before the skies became a space controlled by the ethereal and ever-present threat of terrorists and hijackers. We remember the Golden Age of flight clearly: airport terminals and aeroplane cabins in some kind of post-Art Deco dream of gold and leather, suited men smoking freely, movement uninhibited by security concerns. Now, our very notion of movement is predisposed on questions: who might try to harm me as I move to my destination? What violent political orders are gestating in this airport, this meaningless space? Every journey is constituted to feel like a risk worth taking.

For some, airports are hubs for unease about the current state of a world that is firmly interconnected but adrift in meaning. Denver International Airport, opened in 1994, has become a hotspot for conspiracy theorists who believe that the world is increasingly subjugated under authoritarian rule. Their reasoning hinges on an unusual mural found in the airport’s concourse, entitled In Peace and Harmony With Nature, which depicts a armed figure in a trenchcoat and gask mask impaling a dove on a scimitar, while several hooded women weep in the foreground. The artist denies any conspiratorial intent, but the implication of the fear is obvious: airports, as the most visible apparatus of national security regimes, reveal to us that the world is not entirely rudderless; that there are inaccessible systems in place to guide our shared existence.

New airport designs mask the increasingly restrictive apparatus of counterterrorism under the facade of openness and friendliness. Glass atriums and natural blue sky replace the previous harsh electrical lighting. Modern blueprints leave space for tree belts and natural systems to exist in harmony with the constructed environment. This is part of a modern trend towards green design, but it also carries a transcendent meaning: you are safe here.

You see the façade, but you should ignore it, it says. Things are uncertain, but fundamentally they are as they always were.

The Harvard philosopher George Santayana wrote in his essay “The Philosophy of Travel” that we feel the need to move about so that we might “escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what.”

It formalises into philosophical rigour the standard platitudes that one might find on a travel blog or in a magazine. But thinking about travel misses those essential moments that I often remember most clearly about my journeys: the long periods spent between destinations, languishing in airport terminals in the presence of strangers, existing somewhere and yet nowhere.