Sunday, 30 August 2009

The Ordinary as Spectacle


I'm back. The "ordinary as spectacle" crept up over and over again whilst traipsing through New York City. New York is a foodie town and current trends often reflect larger cultural shifts before they are evident elsewhere. Things that are reflective of society often are repackaged, remarketed and franchised to the rest of the world. So what is in vogue? Places with simple limited menus - vanilla, chocolate or strawberry served in a Guy Debord kind of spectacle of simplicity. In other words, you will notice the ordinariness of the place in a way that makes it less ordinary.

Back in the good old days, when stylish boutique hotels and restaurants started popping up around the city, there was a trend amongst my peer group to avoid such places. Instead, we'd go skipping happily into the biggest dives in town, eating and drinking under graffiti laden walls and wood paneling. They were our secret places, off limits to tourists. Inside we'd encounter the odd dwarf junkie shooting up, but, that made it "real". And then, this kind of thing became trendy, and, hidden bars and restaurants with no names started popping up to appeal to this anti-place instinct. We'd been packaged. Onward we marched into Williamsburg and Greenpoint into obscurity. Investment bankers followed. Trendy residential buildings sprouted.

Nine years later, this "authenticity", this "ordinaryness" has taken another twist. I spent an evening uptown in touristville in the upmarket Parker Meridian hotel. We went to the cafe inside entitled "The Burger Joint". It was a genuine piece of performance art. The queue was about 45 minutes. The sign, painted on cardboard gave precise instructions. Know what you want before you reach the counter or you will be sent to the back of the line. A real New Yorker kind of rule. A staccato menu was posted -- hamburger, cheeseburger, or grilled cheese. Don't forget to say how you would like it cooked. Wood paneling laden with graffiti and tacky old-school posters adorned the walls. Familiar trendy songs of old wafted in the air. Fire leapt from the tiny open kitchen. Phones rang, people jostled for tables and the service was crisp and laid the onus for pleasure on the customer side.

What should one think upon entering an upmarket New York Hotel and encountering a scene from the lower east side of old? Beyond irony, turning left at sincerity and grabbing a few props along the way, it was pure theatre. And a very odd thing to think that the cherished hipster experience had gone full circle in clientele. The path from from a) it is genuine and the people are from places you have never known to b) here come the artists to c) let's market that to d) it is no longer genuine but the people are again from places you have never known...

The ordinary as spectacle had gone full circle. Loop de loop. And the burger was most delicious.

There are indeed too many things in the world. That is something that was highlighted by the economic crisis. Guilty about consumption? No problem. New York is on the case. If you are offered three quality items, no more, it cuts out the anxiety for you. And you can still overpay for that ice cream cone, or hamburger, guilt free.

So. You will know when the economic crisis is over when these places no longer hold the heart and soul approval of NYC foodies. When the ordinary as spectacle subsides, and, a more ornate kind of culinary presentation again reemerges (like the tall food embelishments of days past), well, then, perhaps we've gone past back on track and the bubble alarm ought to be ringing again...

1 comment:

Muggletonian said...

Excellent post; you nail the performative aspect of this so-called "simplicity." If a certain class of New Yorker is incapable of real contrition (never mind amends) for its previous excesses, how appropriate that an overpriced burger can at least help them pretend. They must feel just like regular working folk, waiting patiently in a long line...at the Parker Meridien.