Livonia, Livonia

Andrew Mehall

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Livonia, Livonia …

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell
And the profit and loss.
              A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispes. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
              Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.1T.S. Eliot, “Death by Water,” Collected Poems: 1909-1962  (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1963), 75.

A void, simply put, is a defined space where there is a defined no-thing. Voids can have a history, and be a cavity, a place where something had previously occupied it, but voids are always a place yet to be occupied. A burp in my mouth. In astronomy voids can be identified, and possess a rigidity in scale and structure. We can then consider voids in terms of possessing material, and we find they are comprised of either time or space, both, or a lack of these “materials.” Furthermore, these two materials are the chief entropic vehicles of the universe, and we must understand entropy’s one, self-perpetual objective is to render all it can into one sprawling, yet super-dense void, one which Robert Smithson dubbed “an all-encompassing sameness.”2Robert Smithson, “Entropy and the New Monuments,” in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam (Los Angeles: University of ...continue As ambivalently unyielding of a force the universe has, we as human beings fart away, and calculate new strategies in an attempt to conquer entropy, to perhaps exist outside of its agenda.

The entropic process, may be viewed as an infinitely patient, ever-present swalloing, and is thus described by its founder Rudolf Clausius in his book On the Mechanical Theory of Heat: “the entropy of the universe tends to a maximum.”3Rudolf Clausius, The Mechanical Theory of Heat, ed. Thomas Archer Hirst (Harvard: J. Van Voorst, 1867), 365. Whilst it’s certainly possible for the degeneration (or we can use the more poetic Smithson term, energy drain) to occur in sudden, intense explosions of energy, like wildfires or hurricanes, the universe tends to prefer a more methodical approach, one of aphid-like penetration. A network of voids over time is carved around, which can then ultimately collapse into one deep pothole, and yet still we so naively deny our free-fall. No one has been able to reverse the trajectory towards this entropic future, but through his strategies, man has, perhaps by accident, succeeded in suspending himself in arrhythmia with his future. In The Illusion of the End, Jean Baudrillard observes that “We are, then, unable to dream of a past or future state of things […] neither finished, nor infinite, nor definite, but definitive that is, deprived of its end.”4Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End, trans. Chris Turner (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), 108. Can the present be used to hide the shadow of the past, like breakfast while hungover? In a city like Detroit, where manifestations of its own mistakes are as common as the purple lips of Joumana Kayrouz, entropy has a stranglehold. There is hardly a “present” in Detroit, just a past and a future that are not mutually exclusive. Overgrown weeds, cutting through cracked concrete, make for quite a romantic image, and the shitty graffiti-covered halls of Michigan Central Station is the perfect set for an Eminem music video. The ruins of Detroit are the perseverance to make funny faces despite the warnings of your mother: “If you keep doing that, your face is going to stay that way!” In many ways, its face has stayed scrunched, lips puckered, and eyes crossed. What an unreal place, where we still hang out hat on tenacity, “blue-collar,” “going to work” and of course so much work has been done here, yet we have really what to show? Not much more than somone who never goes a day without masturbating, and has stiff bed sheets to prove it – is that not admirable work ethic! An interesting act to consider, masturbation – a physical stimulation of the body, performed with the body that is mediated by the virtual, memory refreshed, an object or a real partner; all of which must remain in some way remote. An ex-girlfriend’s sheets from KOHLS can be recalled, perhaps more vividly through a simple fifteen minute afternoon session, where pathetically they will slide away from your ugly thighs back into the archives of memory leaving you cooly recalling why you so desperately wanted her to dump your ass so long ago. That is, of course, not to say that these memories, while specific, are always perfectly bound to the experience from which they originally were generated. What’s inside your skull doesn’t just do things “right.” Binary is tidy and was not modeled after the brain. Therefore we must consider fidelity, for memories are not true fascimiles of expereince, properly achieved. They are more dynamic, built things, by us – congruent to experience. They remain warm like the sound of a record, they are analog in space, they do not understand threshold. All of these things, however, are vestiges of a time extinguished, historical avatars, in the end the sun bleaches even the brightest of colors. Of course there is a temporary charm in the spectacle of the ruin, but this charm is subject to a proximity. No one wants to live next to a funeral home, and have to consider the indiscriminate indifference of the universe over their morning coffee. And once the nostalgia bleeds out, the blue and yellow letters of IKEA appear that much more vivacious in the minds eyes, and frozen “Swedish” meatballs can seem exquisite.  This is the Eternal City, where history has been rendered a fiction, no more real than a Rob Zombie film, a perverse yet novel sentimentality. The future within the eternal city is simultaneously being attained and yet it retains a romantic remoteness. Disposability means inherent renewal in this place, and the representation of resilience means a built-in, increasingly shorter, increasingly brighter half-life. Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities creates a place similar to this:

Isidora, therefore,  is  the  city  of  his  dreams: with one difference. The dreamed-of city contained him as a young man;   he arrives at Isidora in his old age. In the square there is the wall where the old men sit and watch the young go by; he is seated in a row with them. Desires are already memories.5Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974), 12.

This is the Eternal City; Livonia, Michigan, just as it used to be Rome, or to Robert Smithson, Passaic, New Jersey.

We’re on so many drugs, junkies for what constantly eludes us, energy and time. Through highly advanced modern technology we’ve managed to fabricate “energy,” even sugar-free – “NO CARBS NO CRASH LATER.” Much in this same vein, our greatest triumph may be mastering time, which the suburbs provide a zone for. A sort of synthetic “anti-entropy” exists here, a fascimile modeled after its namesake, where the instant a crack appears, the cavity is immediately filled by something else, and this something cannot be a true progression, but a latex Halloween mask.

rolls of toilet paper over/around/in trees, on cars, over the house, and on the lawn Image courtesy of the artist

rolls of toilet paper over/around/in trees, on cars, over the house, and on the lawn
Image courtesy of the artist

Shopping malls came to my hometown of Livonia before I was ever born, and I experienced them not as bustling centers of modern commerce but in their waning twilight, and fleeting destiny. While still in the throes of its death, plans were made to replace Livonia Mall with a more viable, new structure:

The Wal-Mart, slated to fill 180,000 square feet at the shopping center, would become the second built recently at the site of a former Livonia shopping mall. Another Wal-Mart opened two years ago near Plymouth and Middlebelt roads, at the former site of Wonderland Mall. It is about four miles from the new complex.6“Livonia Marketplace groundbreaking set for Thursday,” Crain’s Detroit Business, posted August 24, 2009. Accessed 05-10-13. ...continue

Leading up to its demolition in 2009, the mall became a tomb, a ghost condemned to whisper its memories of a once-opulent life and its legacy of an inevitable obsolescence. Each passing day the mall also took on the image of a monument of our failure and a burgeoning reminder of our knack for the unsustainable. And so what one-day was a cemetery sinking swamp, the next day was a Wal-Mart so new, and so bright that it looked more like a distant giant diorama. The Architecture is just modern enough, we’ve all but forgotten Livonia Mall, but certainly not romantic enough to where it’s ultimate demolition will be such a shame. Jerry Herron characterizes this as “the humiliation of history; not the ‘lessons’ of the past, but the mastery of ownership.”7Jerry Herron, “Three Meditations on the Ruins of Detroit,” in Stalking Detroit, ed. Georgia Daskalakis, Charles Waldhein, and Jason ...continue

What was a dying mall, where I’d hide in clothes racks from my mother as a child, where the depressingly dim lighting didn’t seem dim to me as a teenager, now is “The Livonia Marketplace.”

Time is invisible, and is only a discernible “thing,” thorugh the effects and traces of temporality, the recess in a pillow. While overtly obvious, it’s worth stating: time cannot truly be suspended, thus the rhetoric of a suspension of time is merely a misrepresentation, a constructed illusion (constantly controlled) that temporality persists, even beneath the translucent veil.

At their very core, no matter how modest, a house is a structural defiance of nature and from the moment it is deemed “indoors,” so begins the universe’s slow, yet assured assault. “Gravity can’t forget,” and water will prove to be the most dogged of adversaries. Concrete, drywall, or laminate are no match for soemthing that operates without the burden of time. It absorbs, it makes “the missing linked.”

By implanting impermanence into the structures around us, it grants us a certain flexibility. When we become the designers of our reality, we maintain a constant control of the world’s bleeding density (and how we perceive it) around us. Nature is not permitted to seep its way in, as it has so many times in the past. We provide the course for buildings to ru(i)n, so once malls become a dated concept, the location of the void is frozen, like a wart, before its collapse, and a CVS pharmacy takes the land on a loan. Robert Smithson documented this phenomenon which he dubbed “ruins in reverse” within his suburban hometown in his “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey” (1967):

A Utopia minus a bottom, a place where the machines are idle, and the sun has turned to glass […] Time turns metaphors into things, and stacks them up in cold rooms, or places them in the celestial playgrounds of the suburbs […] all that existed were millions of grains of sand, a vast deposit of bones and stones pulverized into dust. Every grain of sand was a dead metaphor that equaled timelessness, and to decipher such metaphors would take one through the false mirror of eternity.8Smithson, “A tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey,” in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, 72.

While Smithson articulated these observations in a way that would suggest a disconnect or resentment, his relationship with the suburbs was a paradoxical one, it was this place that was in a constant dialogue with his work, and provided him with his true reality.

My experience in living in the suburbs of Detroit my entire life is an estranged sentimentality to the physical world around me. Truly beautiful places belong to my parent’s history. My elementary school was engineered with banality in mind, and the church I was baptized in is anything but decadent, and more “ick” than Gothic, what Gordon Matta-Clark described as “a hygienic obsession in the name of redevelopment which sweeps away what little there is of an American past, to be cleansed by pavement.”9Gordon Matta-Clark, quoted in Corinne Diserents, Gordon Matta-Clark (London: Phaidon, 2003), 188. This is the true, sprawling shallowness that is suburbia. You can be perfectly excessive in New York, like one of Andy Warhol’s “Superstars,” or beautifully austere in the country like an Andrew Wyeth subject. Or somewhere else altogether, where neither can exist, in Livonia. There is undoubtedly a void here, a sad reminder, a shell, a projection of a focused, operational thing that’s really fixed in a pathetic, fashionable futile synapse. 

References   [ + ]

1. T.S. Eliot, “Death by Water,” Collected Poems: 1909-1962  (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1963), 75.
2. Robert Smithson, “Entropy and the New Monuments,” in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), 10.
3. Rudolf Clausius, The Mechanical Theory of Heat, ed. Thomas Archer Hirst (Harvard: J. Van Voorst, 1867), 365.
4. Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End, trans. Chris Turner (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), 108.
5. Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974), 12.
6. “Livonia Marketplace groundbreaking set for Thursday,” Crain’s Detroit Business, posted August 24, 2009. Accessed 05-10-13. http://www.crainsdetroit.com/article/20090824/FREE/908249988/livonia-marketplace-groundbreaking-set-for-thursday
7. Jerry Herron, “Three Meditations on the Ruins of Detroit,” in Stalking Detroit, ed. Georgia Daskalakis, Charles Waldhein, and Jason Young (Barcelona: Actar, 2001), 35.
8. Smithson, “A tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey,” in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, 72.
9. Gordon Matta-Clark, quoted in Corinne Diserents, Gordon Matta-Clark (London: Phaidon, 2003), 188.