Place: Silence in the Former Indianapolis Airport Terminal
The new one’s five miles away, the sign says. I am one of three people in the building. We are outnumbered by birds. The world says: why, this old thing? It’s gone. Retired. It’s returned to its original state. The GROUND TRANSPORTATION CENTER, titled in block letters, is closed. The Hertz light is still on, unlike the other car rental places lights’. No one is there. This building looks like it might have been built in what, maybe 1970 or so (turns out it's 1957, though the airport opened originally in 1931)? A building as hulking as this only lasts fifty-two years?
Small sounds echo through the parking garage across the abandoned street. This is one of those moments, I tell myself, that’s worth the error of showing up here. Google maps brought me here. My GPS brought me here. Voices--or signs of voices, their words indistinguishable from this distance--echo down the drive-up by what used to be the baggage claim. Once they are gone, and it doesn't take long, the only man-made sound is the sound of evident fanhum, somewhere quite a ways off. Perhaps it’s the sound of a jet engine from a half-mile away. Past the cyclone fences (there are still places we are not allowed to go) a few planes are still parked on the tarmac, mostly sporting FedEx logos. You can almost get out there now that the security has faded. I walked around for a while to try to find my way into things. Without actual breaking and entering, and I don't have the time for that, it was difficult to find a point of entry. And now: a red Ford Mustang drives by slowly, wondering, as I did when I came through here, about this place. It still has all the outward signs of airport. But none of the rules. You can stop wherever you want. Take a piss on the curb. Smoke crack in the street. Strip and stroll around the passenger terminal.
It is spring, and the bank of tulips have stupidly come up. They are pretty, purple and gold. I am the only one here to see them. They would not know this might be the apocalypse.
I’m rarely given to wondering about the uses of buildings, of larger structures like airports. But this one is gone and done.
And now: another jet descending.
More birds everywhere. They’ve nested up underneath the second level. When you tune into them they are everywhere in abandoned spaces, protected spaces. Perhaps they see the planes and think maybe. Perhaps they have long desired the runways for their own devices.
Then: what sounds like footsteps.
The alert sound of geese, now, on the floor above me.
The scraping of a plastic remnant of something along the ground. It’s amazing that I can hear it.
I don’t think I’ve ever really listened to an airport before. There’s never silence. We're not conditioned for it. This is a place of conscious and constant noise. I take some video to illustrate:
Things to watch for (aside from my crap camerawork): the light, the space, the silence.
Where I'm from is, to a significant extent, ruins. You drive in nearly any direction from my hometown in Michigan's Upper Peninsula (always I describe it thus, not the lower but the upper, always name-checking my state, my peninsula, in case you don't know this about me, which you probably do already; if you know my work at all it reeks of Michigan) and within a half an hour you'll run through ruins. You'll drive by the remains of the iron ore processing plant out towards Dollar Bay. Go up the hill and pass the shafts for the Quincy Mine. Take a detour through one of many ghost towns, or towns barely hanging on: Cliff, Kearsarge, Delaware, Gay, Atkinson, Gibbs City, Fayette, Mansfield, Wilson, Mandan, and the especially poorly-named Phoenix, just to name a few. Drink in a bar and see the names of capsized ships and other ships run aground in storm. Divers still go out for them. Many of them have yet to be located. Cemeteries list their dead, until those stones are worn away by weather. The countryside--and the water around it--is littered with buried stories.
I guess the abandoned airport isn't so different from a lot of rural places. But this place boomed. It once was something. Like the South, it thinks it might rise again. It's not ruined in the way that the South is ruined. It lacks the year-round growth, the amazing rain forest spread of kudzu, the Civil War monuments, that sense of tangible history. But it has its own history, that of the mines and the immigrants, the tourism, the landscape, the Native Americans, the weather, hearts and hearts filled up with pain. It is beautiful. To live here, or even to visit here, is to understand perspective. Age. The nature of progress.
A lot of the towns are named after other, more famous cities. The street signs reference other states, other rock formations, other landscapes. Even other languages (the street signs in Hancock are, amazingly, in Finnish). Everything is a metaphor for something else. A stand-in. Synecdoche, maybe, a set of clickable links, many of them now their own dead-ends.
Five miles away from the old terminal, the new terminal does feel new. The roads leading to it are new, the grass clearly fresh sod, the design spacious and with warehouse ceilings, the whole building curved. The new building includes a number of “green” technologies, green being a word half-assedly thrown around a lot lately. Even the logos on the men's and women's bathrooms are tweaked, not the standard silhouettes, but something a little bit more stylish. It's a nice touch. The building is beautiful, even if, as according to the Indianapolis Star, the new terminal is “super easy to use but lacks a sense of place.” To me, that seems like the point. This terminal is the first designed and built after September 11th, 2001, and it does seem easy to navigate, open, large, spacious, placeless.
In the new terminal (illustrated above in the end of the video), the bridge between the baggage claim and the parking garage features a color light show that overlays the moving walkways. It’s an interactive installation called “Connection” designed by an LA-based studio called Electroland. It detects movement, and the lights move in accordance with the movements of those walking or standing on the moving walkway. According to a press release from TYZX, a company that makes the “3D Embedded Vision Systems” that make this real-time tracking possible, “If two pedestrians line up or pass each other, orthogonal lines suddenly appear on the floor, creating a visual connection between people who would otherwise simply be strangers through an airport.”
The best moment is when the lights freak out and the sound system cues its snippet of what is in fact disco band Le Chic’s “Freak Out,” an easy pleasure, sure, but who cares? It’s funny, it’s referential. It gives you something to look at as you stand--moving, watching the kids walk backwards to stay in place, a little easy magic that we’ve all done--over the cars below on their way to somewhere else, as you’re on your way to your car to go somewhere else. The kids always dance when this happens. They do the disco call. They don’t want to leave. They’ll remember it.
After all, this is an airport: any kind of pleasure will do. A glance from a stranger. A decent book gleaned in the bookstore. An undiscovered sudoku underneath your seat. The promise of actual peanuts in an actual foil bag to be decanted onto your tray table where you dot your finger with spit to pick up the remaining salt and peanut dust. An open seat. A plug-in. Free wifi. Witty graffiti in the bathroom. The occasional bird exploring the terminals.
This place is not place. It’s intermediary, interstitial, temporary, a walkway to something else. You’re leaving it, you’re returning to it. You’re traveling through it. It’s designed to be moved through as easily as possible (well, theoretically). And this new terminal almost doesn’t appear like a building at all. The high and curved ceiling. The daylight. It aspires to being absence. If it had its way it would be a field. It would not remind you of control, of the many minor humiliations you've just undergone, your inability to light up a cigarette, to make a bad bomb joke.
The moving walkway--the really interstitial place nested in the larger interstitial place--vibrates a little if you sit in the middle of it. It sways with the aggregate motion of the walkers and standers, and maybe a little from wind and flex and traffic below. It's Indiana. They get wind. It is surely designed to give. But the point of this installation is to remind you that this place is place, mostly, that these are people, that there can be connections between us. In its way it is essay, it is trying to make a point. It is also fun.
So this isn't just interstitial, meant for those en route, but it's an attraction in itself.
Only after the terminal will be eventually retired, returned to relic, like the old terminal is, does it return to being place, can we once again experience it as such. This place feels like traffic and people and leaving and coffee and fast-food and baggage and occasional engine roar.
I’m sitting in the center of the walkway. A janitor opens the door, puts up his cones and warning signs. He has cleaned this floor, this space before. To him it is just another room, a part of the job. These places mean something to each of us. To him I am an obstacle, sitting in the walkway as he readies his mops. We are aware of each other. He wonders whether I’ll move, whether he will have to ask me to move, whether he should ask me to move. I’m unsure of my right to the space, too. It is for me, a traveler, someone who’ll board a plane here in a couple hours and get the fuck out of this space, this place, and return to my own. But he’ll be here. This place is his. I wonder if he appreciates it, the light show, the architecture, or if it’s just another place.
When the installation does not detect anyone in the elevated hallway (itself an intermediary), the sound system shows no lights. An electronic voice is cued. It says “Game Over.” And so it is. I get up. I leave this space to the guy about to clean the floor. I leave that other place to the birds who’ve already moved in.