We speak frequently about the tension between small personal steps and large systemic changes, but we don't offer explore the hardships and joys of the big things we do as individuals.
Take transit -- no, literally take transit in much of North America, and you will discover a mode of conveyance that is generally greener (much greener if traveling within a dense city) but at least on occasion far more inconvenient: checking timetables, waiting for late buses and trains, dealing with the crazy and homeless, moving at the mercy of large bureaucracies. There is a quiet heroism to those of us North Americans who not only don't drive, but don't even own a car and thus go everywhere they go by public transportation.
Seattle artist (and my close friend) Christian French spent a stint as artist-in-residence for the public transportation agency Sound Transit. In the process, he decided that what was most interesting was not the routes the agency was building, or the new railroad cars that would run on them, but the people who would decide to ride in them.
To dramatize the hard, quiet work demanded of those riders, French created a persona, TransitMan, a superhero who takes public transportation as his superpower. Then he actually donned a superhero costume and spent a lot of time commuting and traveling and documenting the travails of a man in tights dedicated to reducing personal automobile use.
Along the way, he found some brilliant ways of expressing our basic predicament, including these found quotes:
"Among the other things they do, all the great superheroes raise for us the important questions we must ask about our own powers and potential for doing good, and they hint perhaps at some of the ways that our lives cannot help but to be explorations of the possible answers."
"The main question is not whether we as ordinary people would be prepared to do what a superhero might have to do under the most extraordinary circumstances, but rather whether we are in fact prepared to do whatever we can do in ordinary ways to make the world such that it doesn’t require extraordinary salvation."
Christian has a show up now: if you're in Seattle or passing through, you ought to make a point of going to seeing it. Though his insights may be scaled to the level of regular people. they are far from commonplace -- more importantly, they illuminate (as only good art can) the profound meaning the major decisions we make as everyday people. Then they go further to reveal the unseen cultural weight those decisions carry. TransitMan transcends public art to become a comment on the dilemmas and joys of moving through contemporary cities, which is, in some fundamental ways, a comment on 21st Century life itself.
Long live Transitman!
Looks like the L.A. Chinatown station. Nice to see Transitman doesn't only take transit in Seattle. Hey, his life will get much easier there when the LINK line opens in 2009.
what this article doesn't address is the fact that the private automobile, considered the apex of personal mobility in the 20th century, is fast becoming the model for IMmobility due to traffic congestion. the larger problem is that so many places in the U.S. have no alternative mode to offer, or have such minimal transit systems that they are only suitable for use during standard commuting hours, by a fraction of the population. under those conditions using transit seems like a "heroic" act that most would call crazy; but if we don't move toward making mass transit the norm soon no one will be able to go anywhere.