Thursday, August 20, 2009

Out today: Q&A on Speed Limits

In a visit to Montreal earlier this year, I really enjoyed the exhibition Speed Limits at the Canadian Centre for Architecture—this place has a knack for addressing megatrends in succinct, entertaining ways. Today the National Post published a brief version of a Q&A I did with exhibition curator Jeffrey Schnapp of the Stanford Humanities Lab.

I'm posting a longer version of the Schnapp interview text here, which continues after the jump. FYI for American readers (or Canadian snowbirds) the show is co-presented by the Wolfsonian in Miami Beach, and will show there in fall 2010.

This past spring, a couple of American scientists said they’d figured out how to travel at warp speed. Now the Montreal exhibition “Speed Limits” suggests that our everyday life is approaching same—at least from the point of view of our ancestors. Curator Jeffrey Schnapp gives Leah Sandals a quick overview.

Q Your exhibition on speed in modern life was inspired in part by ancient literature. How so?

A One of the points the show tries to make, even though it’s focused on the industrial era, is that speed is not a creation of that era. It has a much deeper history, one rooted in the history of religions, in imagining the powers possessed by supernatural beings. The word “angel” comes from “angelos,” the Greek word for messenger—you might say that the most complete instant messaging system before the modern era was dreamed up in Christianity, which imagined angelic messengers connecting all beings to one another instantly. I’m very interested in the way that modern communications systems continue to be animated by fantasies about the ability to be everywhere at once.

Q Reports of people dying from stress-related heart attacks or from illegal speed racing accidents are common. Why are we humans willing to risk so much—even our very lives—for speed?

A We have a fascination with speed, but also ambivalence. Speed is often associated with ideas about power, like the power to accomplish things, or to awe ourselves and others. I think the tendency to be in constant communication with large numbers of people, or to multitask and do more, is experienced as an expansion of our power as individuals. There’s something very seductive about that. But there’s consequences when you change the pace at which your mind and body functions. Balancing those is the tightrope all of us walk in our daily lives.

Q You’ve suggested elsewhere that critics of speed might be antidemocratic. How is that?

A This is a very complex issue going back to the 19th century. More recently it’s been given new momentum by the way that speed has threatened quality of life and the environment. Nonetheless, our systems of speed democratize luxury to broader sectors of the population. So the slow food movement focuses on buying local. But how many of us would be ready give up the rapid international transport that brings us tomatoes all year round? All kinds of fruit? Rich spices? As much as I’m sympathetic to the idea of slowing life down and focusing on quality, I wonder whether we would be prepared to renounce the ability to have constant access to people who are dear to us, to eat tomatoes year round, to give up these forms of freedom. I wouldn’t say all the critiques of speed are against democratization of consumption. But I think they have a challenge in creating a democratized and slowed-down world.

Q Usually when we think speed, we think cars and planes. Why do you instead, in one exhibition section, focus on kitchens?

A I wanted an example we tend not to think about. Over its history, the kitchen has morphed from a social space, with a flame that burned almost in a sacramental function, to a place that is like a factory. Today all the high-end home kitchen designs are completely shaped by the model of industrial kitchens—Subzero freezers, restaurant-style ranges, stainless-steel surfaces. It’s been transformed into a scientific factory for food production.

Q You also display old typewriters instead of, say, Blackberries. Why?

A Typewriters sped up the transcription of documents—and it sped up many times over its history, changing our own perceptions of speed. I remember trying out an electric typewriter for the first time in the 60s and thinking it was almost too fast, that my thoughts couldn’t keep up with it. Now, that’s actually pretty slow.

Q In the show, there’s a video of Usain Bolt breaking the 100-metre record. How fast do you think humans can go?

A In the early history of sports, records were broken by very significant amounts—people would lop entire minutes off marathons, or entire seconds off sprints. Now, as we reach the performance limits of the human body, these records are broken in milliseconds. We require ever more complex timing devices to even record these increases in achievement, and we need technologies like high-definition video replay to see it. I think the issues of limits to human performance are being felt deeply—even if everything out there attempts to postpone the day of reckoning.

“Speed Limits” continues to November 8 at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal (

Installation view of the exhibition Speed Limits at the CCA in Montreal 2009 (c) CCA

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