"Weird, How We Just Trust the Road"
Undine Sommer // edited by Elliott Elliott & Mick Hennessy
In the winter I travel with three strangers in a rideshare from Montreal to New York City.
Just before the US border we get in a snow storm.
Snow is falling from the sky as well as blowing from the neighbouring fields onto the highway.
The view is milky and powdered sugary and the sounds are all muffled. It’s a dreamy feeling and I think about filming it with my phone.
Weird, how we just trust the road.
The driver is a sound designer for film. We both squint our eyes and try to see any other cars.
Thirty seconds later, non-moving objects appear on the road. A mattress, sheets, pieces of wood, pieces of plastic, something red, something black, a truck. The driver hits the brakes, but we aren’t slowing down at all.
Later, I am told, I woke up my fellow passengers on the back seats with my scream. I don’t remember screaming. I only remember that in these couple of seconds, I was acutely aware that this is how I might die: smashed into a shattered camping van that had smashed into a truck. The view all milky and powdered sugary. The sounds all muffled.
We commute from one tow truck to another, waiting for the police bus to take us somewhere else. Some people leave the highway by car, like the McGill professor, his wife and their new born baby who we wave at amiably when they drive past our tow truck. For some reason the sound designer holds the baby’s security blanket in his hand, which he realizes only when the car is already too far. He runs after them on the snow-blown road, waving with the soft, pink blanket.
When it gets too cold for us to wait any longer in the unheated tow truck, we start wondering where everybody else has gone. We get out of the tow truck and walk with our luggage, which includes the sound designer’s very heavy film light kit, through snow and pieces of vehicles, in a slalom between a few dozen cars, trucks, tow trucks, RVs, road workers and journalists scattered in all directions, and finally find the police. They tell us to sit in the back of their car. On the black pleather seat, in the warm midst of my fellow passengers, I look out the window. I observe the news reporter who shivers in a short pencil skirt with a furry mic in her hand, standing in front of our silver SUV before it gets towed away. What a miserable job, I think.
The officers transfer us into an icy police bus and find one more guy who, like us, had been forgotten on the highway. The guy points at a car smashed sideways between two trucks. He got out of his car only seconds before the second truck smashed into the right side of his car. “Is anybody else still on the road?” a police officer asks the bus.
We stare at her.
I sit with the sound designer and one of the two fellow passengers, a film studies PhD candidate, in a small community gym close to the US border. The 4th passenger—a business student on his way to JFK airport to catch a plane to Paris for a job interview the next day—had managed to leave the highway much earlier than us, in an ambulance.
Gym members serve us pizza. But they keep the pizza in the kitchen, with a good dozen gym guys gathered around the table, which makes it uncomfortable to get more than two slices per person. The gym guys eat without inhibition.
Picnic benches are assembled for us on the gym floor. Every car party sits at their own picnic bench. We try to socialize with the guy who came closest to dying that day, but he’s reserved.
There is no taxi to be found to pick us up, and the police are long gone. Some people get picked up by their friends or partners, but they don’t offer us a ride.
According to Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster and Koki Tanaka’s participatory installation work Provisional Studies: Workshop #7 How to Live Together and Sharing the Unknown, catastrophes make for utopian moments of instant community.
My hazy recollection of Tanaka’s work brings to mind images of sleeping bags in naked, tiled rooms, truthful talk and significant silence in wobbly circles of polypropylene folding chairs.
An image of my father resurfaces. He’s making coffee while telling me about Solnit’s observations of how it is often well-intending authorities that hinder the potential of strangers coming together after disasters. In this case the authorities weren’t around much, but they were around enough to prevent an emotion from arising for which, as Solnit puts it, “we don‘t even have a language […] in which the wonderful comes wrapped in the terrible.“
My shins and my chest hurt, and the PhD candidate seems too distressed to eat.
A journalist calls the PhD candidate on his phone. He’s surprised how the journalist got his phone number. I’m surprised he talks to the journalist. He tells them the whole story, he tells them, we are still stuck in a gym with no way of knowing when or how we’ll get home. He asks the journalist to help us.
The journalist asks for his photo.
I do feel a bond with my two fellow passengers. “It’s crazy how the only reference point to a situation like this are movies,” says the film studies PhD candidate. I think back to the business student, who filmed the scene with his phone, who captured the PhD student searching for his shoes in the snow, me screaming every time a new car rushed into the pile-up, first hugging myself against the blustering wind, then hugging a crying stranger, and an American teenage couple with too much black eyeliner repeatedly saying, “We don’t know where we are. We are not from here.”
Maybe for some people this recording will be a reference point.
Finally, one of the gym guys makes an announcement:
“The boys will arrive at 6 pm for soccer practice.”
Solnit, Rebecca, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, Penguin Books, 2010
Tanaka, Koko, Provisional Studies: Workshop #7 How To Live Together and Sharing the Unknown, 2017, Skulptur Projekte 2017, Münster
* 1989 in Konstanz, lives in Berlin
Undine Sommer is a video artist. The quotidian is her raw material, its muted possibilities her driving force. By weaving choreography and imaginary narratives into fact-based stories, her work dramatises the gestures of memory. Portraying bodies entangled in history and conflict, she seeks to preserve and articulate the confounding and agitating effect these histories have upon us. She received her MFA in Studio Arts/Film Production from Concordia University, Tiohtià:ke/Montreal in 2020 and her Degree in Fine Arts from HBK Braunschweig in 2015.More about Undine Sommer