Exurban Archipelago:

The following is a relatively brief description of the project and its larger theoretical context. Below this is the transcript of an imaginary interview where I try to flesh out more nuanced observations of these much overlooked spaces of the contemporary landscape.

The project entitled Exurban Archipelago investigates the interconnections of the built environment and spatial experience. Underlying the project is an implicit claim that whole new kinds of space—and consequently, whole new experiences of space—are steadily emerging across vast tracts of formerly rural countryside that once lay between the larger metropolitan areas. I also contend that these new kinds of landscapes are no longer “thinkable” in the old familiar ways, but rather require radically different kinds of symbolic representation to become spatially coherent. For all of us turn-of-the-century users of this space, different kinds of cognitive mapping* are needed to visualize and to relate our own bodily presence to this far-flung surround.

Naming a reality is key to understanding it, and I have chosen exurbia, a term originally coined back in the mid fifties. For me, exurbia names this patchwork of engineered spaces organized according to an entirely different spatial logic than that of the more familiar urban/suburban nexuses. The critical difference can be summed up diagrammatically as that between the older hub & spoke schematic and the exurban node & network. The traditional suburbs (despite the powerful centrifugal forces on their outer fringes) remain largely oriented towards the city centers from which they originally sprang, and thus we intuitively map these areas as so many peripheries radiating out from their centers. What distinguishes exurbia from suburbia is that, to a much greater extent, it operates beyond the gravitational pull of the cities and is instead arranged pell-mell and discontinuously along the outlying expressways. Its larger concentrations of growth—its corporate centers, shopping malls, residential developments and so on--are largely clustered around prominent intersections along the extensive network of crisscrossing expressways.

Again, I am interested in the interconnections of the built environment and spatial experience. The project, Exurban Archipelago, focuses primarily on just one of the signature building types that proliferate across these regions, variously called distribution centers, logistics or even fulfillment centers. These are the massive, boxlike structures often within view of the major expressways. Mostly windowless save perhaps for one corner dedicated to office work, their most salient feature is the ring of truck bays (loading docks) that often wrap around multiple sides. Among other things I am drawn to the shear scale of these buildings, which adds to their spectral-like presence on the landscape. But more than anything, the Exurban Archipelago project explores the rigorous geometries of these imposing architectural forms and how they perceptibly and imperceptibly affect our experiences of the “floating’ spaces of this post-industrial landscape.

Exurban Archipelago: The Interview

The following transcript was taken from a 2010 interview with artist and self-styled exurban theorist, Steven Baris. The interview was conducted by Wurlitzer Prize-winning journalist, Marjorie Lantaincus for the August 2010 issue of Culture Confidential. The interview took place on location at the Springfield Museum of Contemporary Art on the occasion of Baris’s blockbuster exhibition titled Exurban Archipelago.

ML: It is a pleasure meeting you Mr. Baris, especially at this time with so much hubbub surrounding your recent foray into that ever-contentious field of exurban theory. Earlier I had a chance to tour the exhibition, and I must say that I found it nothing short of brilliant. But before we go any further, why don’t you start by explaining to our readers what this exurban thing is all about.

SB: First of all, please call me Steve. I’m not that good with formalities. And I hope you don’t mind if I call you Marge. And thanks for addressing this all-important term, exurbia. I can’t stress the importance of getting a fix on this because, as you know, the spatial experience of exurbia underlies my entire project. And quite frankly Marge, I’m not thrilled with the definitions I see on the web, which are usually limited to something like the areas outside cities where lots of wealthy people live.

ML: Are you saying this definition is wrong?

SB: Perhaps it’s not so much wrong as it is woefully inadequate. Ever since the term was coined by Auguste Spectorski back in the mid fifties** there’s been tons of great research on this topic that paints a far more complex picture of exurbia. The definitions you find on the web are analogous to defining a cockalorum by mentioning only that it is a small man.***

ML: To be honest with you, I’ve never even heard of a cockalorum, but I’ll take your word on it.

SB: For starters, can anyone really claim that now; in the year 2010, only rich people live in exurbia? Hardly. What I think makes these regions so distinctive is what I like to call their unique spatial logic and how that differs from the usual threesome, the urban, suburban and rural.

ML: Spatial logic? Elaborate. Please.

SB: Pardon me while I launch into some technical talk, but I’m afraid there’s no avoiding it. So for a long time the general sense of space in America was broken down into a fairly simple binary; you would’ve lived in either a high-density city or the low-density countryside. By high density I mean a space filled with lots of people and buildings, and of course, with low density there was much less of both. This basic opposition pretty much framed the cognitive mapping of much of the eastern portion of the US up to the early 20th century.

ML: By cognitive mapping I assume you’re referring to Kevin Lynch’s landmark—no pun intended—study of how people visualize and orient themselves in their cities? 4

SB: Bingo. Lynch was trying to get a fix on peoples’ internal, mental representations of their built environment. So moving forward in the history of urban development, we start to see a third kind of space--the suburbs--sprouting up all around the edges of the older cities. This started really kicking in around the early to mid 20th century. Remember Marge: I’m mostly interested how we experience the spaces we live and move around in. I like to think of myself as one of those phenomenologists or whatever they call themselves. But of course, I’m not that smart, so I end up just making pictures if you get my drift. So the key thing for me is how the growth of the suburbs opened up a crucial third and, I should add, a transitional space between the city and the country. You could define this new suburban space quite crudely as “not-rural” and “not-city.” But it is important to emphasize that, structurally speaking, suburbs were nothing more than extensions of the existing city. Just as important, their inhabitants and most of their activities were still oriented toward the city center. [Baris emphatically makes air quotes around “oriented” and “center.”]

ML: Sounds like Urban Development 101?

S.B: I would hope so, but if only it were that simple. But it’s not, so I feel this needs some serious repeating. Going back to early 19th century America, I suspect most folks operated in a strictly bi-spatial world, where, as I just said, it’s either urban or rural. Of course I’m simplifying quite a bit. The rural would’ve likely been made up of farms, forests, and small to mid-sized towns and even isolated industrialized areas like mines and mills. But still, the rural was qualitatively different than the more densely populated and built-up spaces of the major cities.

ML: Let me guess: the suburbs come along, and voila: America goes tri-space.

SB: Slow it down Marge; you’re getting ahead of me. Actually some suburbs go back well into the 19th century. In fact, I happen to live in one of those early suburbs just outside of Philadelphia. But it wasn’t until the 20th century that the distinctive space of the suburbs reached sufficient critical mass to launch what I’ll call--and yes, you guessed it Marge--a tri-spatial cognitive map of the American landscape. At this point the suburbs began to be experienced not only as transitional spaces between the city and the countryside but as a substantive spaces unto themselves.

ML: Again this is pretty much textbook history, so what did you mean a bit ago about things orienting toward the center?

SB: Despite the addition of this third suburban space—again, not densely built-up like the city yet not sparsely populated like the country—the general organization of space remained fairly simple. By simple I mean that people in those times probably understood their world according to a classic center-periphery model.

ML: I’m really getting in to your bi and tri thing. So let me guess: with exurbia coming on, we have a foursome!

SB: Exciting: isn't it. Hard to believe, but not everyone gets jazzed on this stuff like we do. Returning to cognitive mapping, what differentiates the exurb from the older spatial orders is that it deviates so thoroughly from the classic center-periphery model. It’s not that our familiar threesome of city-suburb-countryside ever goes away; it’s just that this fundamentally new kind of space begins to insinuate itself somewhere in between. It begins to overlap or even to displace parts of the former suburbs and displaces even larger swaths of the older rural.

ML: Sounds a little insidious.

SB: Let me get more specific; what distinguishes the newer exurban space from the other three is its fundamental structural logic if you will. Exurban space, to whatever extent it is truly exurban, has nothing to do with centers and peripheries but rather with nodes & networks. The networks are composed largely of the interstate highways. The nodes are the points of connection, either the actual intersections or areas of proximity of two or more expressways. Obviously the more highways crisscrossing each other, the more nodes. And these nodal areas are where we’ve seen so much building and development over the last two or three decades such as the gazillion shopping malls, corporate centers, residential developments, and as I would like to discuss in more detail, distribution centers.

ML: Honestly Steve: why is this so important to you? Last I checked you have an MFA, not a PhD in urban planning.

SB: Oh sure Marge: just another presumptuous artist muddling around in other peoples’ disciplines. [Baris takes a deep, somewhat despondent breadth] Allow me to connect a few dots for you. I’m a visual artist, yes? Visual art has historically been characterized as spatial, unlike the time-based arts like music or literature, yes? So why should you be surprised that I might be influenced by spatial qualities in my environment?

ML: Fair enough Steve. And I apologize if I offended you. But lets cut to the chase here; beyond all this nodes and network stuff, what exactly is it about exurbia that influences your art?

SB: I’ll make it short and pithy: I’m fascinated by space that disorients. I’m drawn to spaces that are engineered to be placeless. It’s like I stalk placeless spaces like they’re scenes of a crime.

ML: Spaces? Places? What’s the difference? And what do you mean by placeless? Scenes from a crime?

SB: Okay, maybe I’m getting a little dramatic here, but I’ll try to tease this out for you. I’ve done a fair amount of reading and even some writing about this stuff. There are two critical features you need to keep in mind when differentiating “place” from the more generic notion of “space.” One is that a “place” is generally thought of as being distinctive and unique. Secondly a true “place” often functions for people as some sort of a center to which people direct their activities and aspirations. This should be obvious with sacred places like Jerusalem or Mecca and any number of sacred sites around the world. But there are plenty of secular center-based places too. Keeping in mind what we discussed about cognitive mapping, a genuine place is conceived differently than a mere “location” or some abstract point on a map.

ML: But didn’t you mention shopping “centers”—I suppose we call them malls--as common features of the exurban scene? So wouldn’t these qualify as “places?”

SB: Possibly. But most shopping malls, like so much of the built world in these areas, tend to fail the “distinctive” test. Think “chains.” Yet I think shopping malls may still function as places in this more technical sense; it all depends on how they function in peoples’ daily life and, of course, how they figure in their cognitive maps. You see, I’m not claiming that there are no “places” to be found in exurbia; just that, on the whole, these regions are strategically engineered according to the spatial logic of the “network” rather than the logic of center/periphery. Driving through the vast tracts of exurbia today, you’re much more likely to encounter what the French ethnologist, Marc Auge, calls non-places. To paraphrase him, a non-place is characterized as a space or network of spaces oriented to networks dedicated to transit. They are designed primarily to be passed-through, the quicker the better. For example, an airport is your consummate non-space but for that matter, so is an expressway. What I am suggesting is that the proliferation of these non-spaces effectively renders entire regions as a non-places, at least in the areas where most folks would likely pass through. Certainly specific locations may be important for a host of reasons, but not as destinations in themselves. Rather they function primarily as relational nodes in a much larger circuit of distribution. By distribution I mean the smooth and efficient distribution of goods and people. Mobility is everything.

ML: You make it all sound so depressing out there. I can already see the letters to the editor, skewering you for dissing their snuggly exurban communities.

SB: Nothing scarier that an exurban fatwa. Does this mean I’ll never be able to show my face again at a turnpike service stop?

ML: Soon as you get out of the car, I suggest you mad-dash it for the sunglasses kiosk. You’ll want the reflective lenses for sure.

SB: But seriously Marge: when I’m talking about all this exurban space stuff, I’m not thinking about specific towns and neighborhoods which are probably not that different than anywhere else. I’m certainly not referring to some backwater town that happens to claim the world’s largest rutabaga. Obviously plenty of places like this still dot the exurban landscape, but I’m simply saying they’ve become largely irrelevant to the incessant flow of cars and trucks snaking all around them. My god, you’ve got to feel for these folks, especially the hunters. Only the true sharpshooters manage to stay out of prison; these days if they miss the deer by even an inch they’ll likely bean some passing motorist.

ML: Okay. I think we’ve got a pretty good grasp of your dark visions of exurbia. So back to you Steve: I’m sure my readers want to know what all this has to do with your curious little art project? And also, what’s the deal with archipelago in your title?

SB: Just a metaphor Marge. Technically an archipelago is a cluster or chain of islands. It can be also defined as a body of water itself that contains lots of scattered islands. Actually I just Googled it right before the interview.

ML: Yes I assumed it was a metaphor. You should know that I was a lit major in college. And, yes, I know what an archipelago is. But more to the point: what is it a metaphor of?

SB: Distribution centers.

ML: Say what?

SB: Distribution centers. I mentioned them a minute ago. They are also referred to as “logistics centers,” or my favorite, “fulfillment centers.” You probably drive by them all the time; they are those low-lying, often incredibly wide, boxy buildings along side the highway ringed with scads of loading docks. You see those big 18-wheelers buzzing in and out of them like bees servicing a hive. As buildings go, they’re typically very colorless. Sometimes they’re fairly isolated, but I’ve noticed they’re often clustered in groups, and almost always located near a major expressway. In fact, my initial fascination with these bland behemoths began with my regular jaunts up and down the New Jersey Turnpike. I started noticing more and more of these structures popping up all over the place. Needless to say, those once upon a time sylvan landscapes have never been quite the same since.

ML: Interesting. I’ve never thought about distribution centers before.

SB: Few people have. Blandness tends to direct the eye elsewhere. But these buildings haven’t escaped my finely honed artistic eye. I should add that distribution centers are incredibly important for the functioning of our modern, consumer-based world. Their name is their function; these structures are built solely for the purpose of receiving goods, either from other distribution centers or from a nearby port, and distributing them to yet other distribution centers or directly to stores. Endless streams of these humongous trucks pull in and out, dropping off or picking up everything from refrigerators to refried beans. But as an artist, I’m more interested in the visual characteristics of these buildings. I like to think of them as my muses but all dressed up like cubes. Anyway, I’m also fascinated by how these mega structures seem to hover over the landscape rather than integrate with it. Even with all the landscaping—when they actually bother to do it—these buildings seem utterly alien to the earth they’re floating over.

ML: Now that you mention it, they do appear rather featureless.

SB: Oh they have features all right. They’re just not what you’re use to seeing with your houses, your office buildings or even stores, all of which are designed to interact—or should I say interface--with people. What makes these structures feel so different is that they’re utterly faceless.

ML: Faceless? I don’t follow you.

SB: Think about it; houses, office buildings and stores all privilege one of their outer walls as a discernable façade meant to face you as you approach. With most of the distribution centers that I’ve observed it’s impossible to say which wall is suppose to be the front and which is a side or the back. All that matters is where the loading docks are. I should add that these buildings are mostly windowless save for a few slats of glass typically placed in one corner where I assume the white-collar types do the all the paperwork. I often wonder if they’re resented by the truckers bitching them down out on the freezing loading docks.

ML: I think I see what you’re getting at Steve. These buildings seem like classic denizens of the exurban scene you’ve described so vividly. Total exurbanality: networks and nodes, speed and transit, non-places.

SB: For sure. The more I observed them, especially from high up with the satellite photography, the more they looked like actual archipelagos stretching out across the South Pacific.

ML: Oh, the South Pacific: I’ve always dreamed of winning a free vacation down there. In fact, I’ll confess that I still show up every spring at my local Polynesian pride festival, just hoping that I’ll win the door prize, a trip to the South Seas. Just looking at your pieces, I imagine the ancient trade routes and bare-chested men in canoes hopping from island to island. Only with your archipelagos: instead of canoes, you’ve got 18-wheelers; instead of crossing miles of crystal blue water, you drive over lots of asphalt. It’s all like some postmodern cargo cult.

SB: Absolutely: whatever that is.

ML: Steve, I think I’m starting to understand what your work is all about, although I seriously doubt if many people will ever understand your exurbia spiel. That’s too bad because, clearly, you’ve put an extraordinary amount of time and thought into this.

SB: The ultimate understatement Marge. This obsession has nearly cost me my friends and family. Nobody even wants to talk to me at parties anymore.

ML: I can’t imagine why, but I’m afraid I too need to stop talking and bring our interview to a close. You have been so illuminating and inspiring. And I want to thank you for taking the time from your busy schedule, and also, wish you luck with your upcoming appearance on Charlie Rose.

SB: It’s been my pleasure.

* “Cognitive mapping”: Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City, M.I.T. Press, 1960

** Actually true: the book was titled, The Exurbanites.

***. Webster’s Dictionary: a little man with an exaggerated idea of his own importance.

Rollover each distribution center to view whatever.