'Worldly Placelessness' by Cher Tan


“People are always, yet never, at home.”
—Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity

I'm sitting in a brand-new cafe close to where I live, bordering the suburbs Mile End and Torrensville in Adelaide. Warm lighting casts a soft glow from the coffeee shop 24/7 (a lone, happy fixture on Henley Beach Road, even past midnight); bulbs encased in wire-frame shades hang from wooden beams, daylight is siphoned from outside via glass panels that serve as both doors and windows. This suburb, like so many neighbourhoods before it — places my wealthy white ex-employers call “dero” — has become victim to the neoliberal claws of gentrification. An organic grocer stands amidst African hair salons and Vietnamese lunch bars, its gaudiness matching its neighbours, hand-painted signs jostling for attention.

A flat white sits in front of me, its latte art a perfect laurel, like the flat white I had in Penang four years ago, like the flat white I had in Prague two years ago, like the #flatwhites dotted across the Instagram landscape in Nanjing, Budapest, Turku, Chechnya.

Where was I? Sometimes I could hardly know.

~~~

Keiichi Matsuda's short video “Hyper Reality” takes place in an unspecified near future. The film presents ‘a provocative and kaleidoscopic new vision of the future, where physical and virtual realities have merged’. A meditation on the saturation of digital and augmented media onto our daily lives, the narrative follows a person as we peer into their life. Screens are superimposed on top of daily banalities — as the protagonist rides a bus, walks on the street, and shops in the supermarket they are constantly engaging with a points system in relation to their existence. Here, life is like a videogame; you are assigned menial tasks (grocery shopping, proof-reading, caring—presumably for others richer in points than you) to level up and gain more status. When idle, the protagonist occupies themselves with a Candy Crush-esque interface to win bonus perks, like a free coffee. At one point, they contemplate “resetting” their identity — losing all progress they've gained, starting over from zero — only to change their mind. Surrounding street signs are in English, and the protagonist converses in Spanish to a customer service rep. We learn that they are in Medellín, Colombia. However, it seems that these scenes can be taking place anywhere. Matsuda envisages a future where the whole world is moderated by the same technology, where each city only slightly different from the last, like a funhouse of mirrors repeating the same images in a constant loop.

As globalisation becomes even more widespread as a result of an interconnectivity writ large, urban centres around the world are starting to look more and more like one another. In the decades after WWII, as politicians across the world rushed to break down borders hampering trade, brands like McDonald's and Ikea led the way: the satisfying bite into a Filet O' Fish became available anywhere, everywhere; the simple aesthetic of a Lack table dotted houses in cities worldwide. Friends in Jakarta, Berlin, Melbourne and Hong Kong have the same Expedit shelving unit for vinyl LPs, most likely a consequence of some unnamed genius' repurposing of what was meant to be a mere ornamental shelf — later Facebooked, Tumblrised, and Instagrammed all over. From this point, the connotations behind capital become more elastic yet more vague, monetary capital expanding and folding into the social and cultural spheres. Cafes, bars and living spaces start to resemble one big franchise, mediated by digital connectivity.

~~~

When French philosopher and cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard wrote Simulacra and Simulation in 1981, he wasn’t so much portending the near future as much as he was commenting on the rise of mass media, consumerism and hyper capitalism experienced by the early 80s. Baudrillard was reflecting on the phenomenon of mega-centres like Las Vegas and Disneyland—sites which enabled visitors to feel like they could provide 'more reality than nature can'. Yet, fast forward three and a half decades later, and the signs of what he conceptualised as “hyperreality” (a condition in which reality and fiction are so intertwined it's uncertain where one ends and the other begins) feels even more real. We're witnessing the vested search for an authentic identity exploding and collapsing unto itself. As Baudrillard writes:

'reality itself, entirely impregnated by an aesthetic which is inseparable from its own structure, has been confused with its own image. Reality no longer has the time to take on the appearance of reality. It no longer even surpasses fiction: it captures every dream even before it takes on the appearance of a dream.'

In our digital age, images and realities are being broadcasted on an instantaneous level, up for grabs to just about anyone in the world with an internet connection. In 2017, Baudrillard's hyperreality is no longer confined to one particular location, but rather its virality is apparent in the way its tentacles are spreading outward, whether that's through #minimalism (7,600,000 strong at time of writing), /r/RoomPorn (560,000 subscribers) or simply aesthetic.tumblr.com. Like places of worship and airports, a small bar in Singapore can look like another in Portland or in London, its patrons dressed eerily alike.

This strange global phenomenon of uncanny likeness is what US cultural critic Kyle Chayka calls “AirSpace”: 'the realm of coffee shops, bars, startup offices and co-live/work spaces that share the same hallmarks everywhere you go: a profusion of symbols of comfort and quality, at least to a certain connoisseur mindset.' Coined from closely observing the evolution of the Airbnb aesthetic worldwide, this aesthetic is characterised by wooden floors, big windows, refurbished and exposed brick, celebrated in lifestyle magazines such as Kinfolk and Monocle. Airspace is marked by interchangeability, frictionless exchange, and symbolic blankness. It's a living room with a pile of vintage suitcases neatly placed in a corner; it's furniture made from shipping pallets, cinder block shelves, a cluster of mismatched picture frames adorning a wall above a fireplace. By claiming to be “authentic” in their uniformity, these markers denote a sense of less that, in our era of excess, ironically feels more real.

And who represents this so-called connoisseur? From a glance, it is easy to infer that they are almost always white, educated and upwardly mobile. The phenomenon of Airspace represents gentrification gone viral, as a globalised hyperreality operates in tandem with taste-making and creation. In the rush to pursue this version of “global citizenship”, it is important to ask, who:

1) gets to gain entry?
2) gets evicted?
3) benefits?
4) defaults?

When taste and taste-making becomes globalised, at whose expense will this come at? The globally affluent, the purveyors of this specific 'global sameness of taste' may revel in the fact that they can seek comfort in more and more places across the globe, but this comes at a price: other selfhoods either fail to measure up or are pushed out. Ghosts remain. As Chayka comments: ‘you either belong to the Airspace class or you don’t.’

In a time of Marie Kondo-style decluttering, negative space becomes synonymous with abundance: a minimalist way of life affects a sense of conspicuous affluence modelled after the cosmopolitan western world. What happens when Beijing looks like Paris looks like Sydney looks like Lagos looks like Helsinki looks like Kuala Lumpur looks like Montréal? Already, as Chayka observes, 'it's possible to travel round the world and never leave Airspace. The homogeneity of these spaces means that traveling between them is frictionless... Changing places can be as painless as reloading a website. You might not even realize you’re not where you started.'

~

These spaces surround me more and more the longer I exist in wealthy, so-called “developed” societies. I'm at once drawn to them, yet simultaneously repulsed—their stoic exteriors are a symbol of a class that I have one foot in and the other foot out of. The punk warehouses of my early adulthood are gradually transforming into commodities enjoyed by all––a temporary escape into a kind of culture that appears revolutionary while teetering on the edges of the universal. Friends in Singapore are priced out of their temporary homes one by one, as scummy neighbourhoods make way for cheap business opportunities with just the ‘right kind’ of edge. Meanwhile, Mad Mouse Alley (arguably Adelaide's best community centre) shuts down after two years, its landlord eager to plagiarise its non-profit model for profit. Our mate Shep's artwork is painted over with white. In one fell swoop, communities of migrants, misfits and agitators lose a sense of tangible rootedness as meeting spaces disappear. My interstitial self looks upon these losses always with despair. I flit in and out of bright white art venues, my Southeast Asian face a curious anomaly, hyper-visible yet invisible. Opening my mouth to speak, my hybridised accent skews western, saying all the right things. I may not have a university degree and earn only twenty-four grand a year—some weeks barely making rent—but I am light-skinned and rich enough in the language of the colonisers. Even as I write, capitalism threatens to commodify my lived experience.

~

Currently, North American seed accelerator—'the world's most powerful startup incubator'— Y Combinator is carrying out a research phase to study building new, ‘better’ cities. Their website proudly proclaims: 'it's possible to do amazing things given a blank slate'. At the same time, Facebook has released plans for a 'mixed-use village' in Menlo Park, California, where their headquarters are located. The development plan calls for nearly two thousand residential units, as well as grocery and other retail stores, a pharmacy, a hotel, and office space. What will these vicinities look like, and who will they serve? Already, cities are transforming at alarming rates as late-capitalism scrambles to optimise the day-to-day lives of its producers. One of the questions Y Combinator asks of its participants is this: “How should we measure the effectiveness of a city? (what are its KPIs?)”

Closer to home, urban planning continues unabated under the guise of change. New “master-planned” cities in Australia are silently rising up from the ashes of farms and Aboriginal communities. From Queensland's Norwell Valley (to house a Chinese-owned Disney-esque theme park, and “Silicon Valley-type activity”) to Western Australia's Lake Argyle in the Kimberleys (plans include an international airport, pegged to be the country's “second capital” and “first mega city”), the concept of terra nullius rages on. Business as usual. Further afield, existing cities continue to see gentrification as a means to eliminate/assimilate those least desirable into capital's progress—the histories of areas like Redfern and Fitzroy are testament to the fact. This fair continent we call “ours” keeps building upon its ghosts, layers and layers of gold atop blood and unaddressed displacement. Thomas Hickey's murder in Redfern continues to haunt and juxtapose its 1.4 million property valuations; towns like Oombulgurri are forcibly closed on the grounds of it 'no longer being viable'. How many other names do we not know? The ones who cannot be eliminated are locked up; in Kelly Lytle Hernandez's City of Inmates, she writes: 'Prisons are used to exterminate a certain population with the intention of gaining access to their land.'

~~~

When cities and neighbourhoods pursue linear goals in order to look like one another, Baudrillard's hyperreality inserts itself deeper into our cultural narrative. Sets of signifiers are created to represent things which do not actually exist—as one sits on a replica Eames chair, they're hoping an intimate distance to markers of taste will align them closer to cultural capital.

Is it possible to form a global community without sacrificing local specificity? As Chayka notes: ‘if taste is globalized, then the logical endpoint is a world in which aesthetic diversity decreases.’ When personal brands become indistinguishable from corporate branding, and when societally produced objects signify prestige through a certain decorative excess—“taste” is exerted through a homogeneous way of externalising oneself. These unspoken markers continue to project itself through ways of living and consuming, as taste-makers put themselves in a position to teach others how to feel the right things.

Indeed, this myth-making trickles down further. As taste gradually becomes the same everywhere, borders blur, but only for those who make the ‘cut’. In the same way how a cafe in Hanoi can look like another in Beijing, both replicas of those in the white western world, a form of “colour-blindness” occurs: I'll enter a space to align myself closer to whiteness, my taste in books (Murakami), films (Wes Anderson) and dress sense (chinos and loafers) a cloak to hide my Otherness while white society pats itself on the back for my presence. If I don't mention it, I'm safe––mentioning my difference only points out my difference; concurrently, my Otherness adds value to the neoliberal conversation surrounding multiculturalism and diversity.

It's business as usual, but given new names. Globalisation continues to build on ongoing empires in the guise of reinvention, borders and boundaries appearing seamless only for those who subscribe to makeshift cultural codes. Invisible dotted lines keep guard, demarcating who's in, while keeping undesirables out. And as our dystopias look more and more like each other, placelessness haunts every street, both as a spectre and a foreboding of the future.



Cher Tan is a freelance writer in Adelaide. She writes mostly on tech, identity, politics and culture. Her work has previously appeared in Kill Your Darlings, Right Now, Roads and Kingdoms, VICE, Catapult and Overland, amongst others. Follow her on Twitter @mxcreant