The first image I saw of the truck stop that would become the subject of this film was actually its reflection. It was past dark, and I was driving west on I-80. Before they disappeared in the night, the clouds hung low in an overcast Midwestern dome. Twenty-three miles from the Mississippi, a glimpse of them emerged in a halo, reflected from something hidden below. At this wattage, I guessed stadium. I thought of the word we sometimes use for these kinds of rest stops: oasis.
Gliding through the main entrance of the World’s Largest Truckstop, one first encounters the Gift Store, which, as the website advertises, offers thousands of items for sale if you are ‘looking for a unique gift for someone.’ Immediately striking when exploring the Gift Store is how many of these items are the reminders of the destination from which, or toward, most non-professional travelers are moving: home. Innumerable baubles, wooden plates, coat racks, etc. are geared toward the reception of guests, proclaiming “Welcome!” or simply an understated acknowledgment of “Home.” The ‘home’ acknowledged is never one of complete generality; at the same time, it lacks the specificity and nuance of describing a unique dwelling. The welcome plaques situate home within a particular subgroup of belonging. ‘Home’ is, by necessity, not defined as the site of your particular dwelling, rather ‘home’ is: “where the heart is,” “where the bears are,” or tautologically defined as “sweet home.”
The ornamental obsession with home feels particularly relevant to Marc Augé’s concept of a non-place from his 1995 essay, Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. The reason to explore this rest stop in a film, though, is not to illuminate its definition as a non-place, nor to reveal in close-up the kitsch objects and media that one might find to be politically questionable. Rather it is the coincidence of the two that I wanted to explore: the site of a non-place and the surfeit of ideologically-intoned objects one finds there.
The most straightforward description of a non-place is a site of transience or impermanence, one which we tend to frequent while in motion such as highway rest stops, airports, supermarkets, restaurant chains, etc. These sites lack the ‘minimal stability’ of a more classical form of place, which Augé terms ‘anthropological place’, one characterized by its history as well as the relations and identities of those who inhabit it. In a place your past, actions and relationships matter; your history informs the specific individuality with which you identify and are identified by others. In a non-place, anthropological identity is superseded by a complex and unstable anonymity—‘paradoxical’ in Auge’s term—because identity is simultaneously emptied and overburdened. With the connection to your history broken, it is immaterial. Instead you become no more than what you do in your shared identity of passenger, customer or driver; while at the same time, with every credit card swipe or presentation of ID, you are hyper-identified in a cloud of big data.
These invocations of identity create the context in which the ‘welcome’ of the non-place can become a weapon. It is telling that you find, in the very site where one’s identity is emptied, objects so concerned with its categorization. It’s not only your gas tank that you can refill in the highway’s rest stop, but, through a purchase of a pin or a plaque, your identity as a war veteran, an American, someone named ‘Amy’, a pistol expert, a person on which not to tread. But as with the welcome signs, which only allow the reflection of a particular group of homes, the selfhood you can purchase is not as an individual, but rather only the member of a group.
Augé touches on the tendency of rest areas to adopt an increasingly aggressive role as centers of regional culture. But it would be essentializing and unfair to allow the local culture of such small, midwestern, interstate-adjacent towns to shoulder the burden of explaining the ideological overtones pressed to the surface in the objects for sale.
The quantity and popularity of the flags, signs, revisionist history audiobooks, I think, is better addressed by the complex engagement with identity in the non-place. No doubt the relative anonymity that goes with this temporary identity can even be felt as a liberation, and such a suspension creates, in some ways, the perfect lacuna for the reception of ideological advertisement. Of course, with this writing and the film, I don’t mean to over-assign importance to some pins at a roadside attraction, but rather to linger on a space I would otherwise unthinkingly flow through. Identity, of course, also flows and is not a static concept, even if pinned to a chest. Like the highway traveler, it is constantly in motion. But in an era marked by the escalation of tribalism and party-oriented attitudes, it feels urgent to look at the ways, however minor, that identity might be shaped, parceled, and hardened when it is welcomed back home.
For me, making a film that is based partly in research, reveals a tension between including the original text & ideas or allowing them to be absorbed by the images. In the end, with Travel Stop, I decided to remove all the text from the film with the exception of the epigraph. The following, then, is an opportunity to share some of the interactions between Augé’s text and my images that were characteristic of the early stages of the project.
If a place can be defined as relational, historical, and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place.
Spaces in which neither identity, nor relations, nor history really makes any sense; spaces in which solitude is experienced as an overburdening or emptying of individuality.
A world where people are born in the clinic and die in the hospital.
Assailed by the images flooding from commercial, transport or retail institutions, the passenger in non-places has the simultaneous experiences of a perpetual present and an encounter with the self.
Encounter, identification, image.
What [one] is confronted with, finally, is an image of [oneself], but in truth it is a pretty strange image.
The space of non-place creates neither singular identity nor relations; only solitude and similitude.
Alone, but one of many. Do as others do to be yourself.
The real non-places of supermodernity—the ones we inhabit when we are driving down the motorway, wandering through the supermarket or sitting in an airport lounge—have the peculiarity that they are defined partly by the words and texts they offer us: their ‘instructions for use.’
This establishes the traffic conditions of spaces in which individuals are supposed to interact only with texts.
Sometimes these are couched in more or less explicit and codified ideograms, sometimes in ordinary language.
There is no room there for history unless it has been transformed into an element of spectacle.
The presence of the past in a present that supersedes it but still lays claim to it.
All text quoted from Non Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity by Marc Augé, 1992.