I actually wanted to name this something snappy like “Sunday morning spirituality” like, some people go to church (still a cultural experience i have to remind myself exists…) and some people go to the mall. I had to drive my dad to the airport and found myself in possession of a car for a week. Crazed with excitement I drove to … the mall. On Sunday at 10, only the food court is open, and I really just needed a bathroom. But I was striken how different the mall looked. I felt mesmerized by the tranquility, warmth and easy silence the space exuded, which clashed with my innner skeptic with my view of malls as faceless, cold prisons of consumerism, where each experience, each sound, each smell is orchestrated and constructed in its entirety. Yet there I was, me, and a few retirees, light falling gently down through the ceiling windows, plants around, and pleasant warmth that didn’t yet feel stifling with the bodies, smells and air of a hundred people.
Then I heard it, a faint music – the central robotic mall brain must have booted up, turning on the Muzak, first faintly, quietly, and gradually, almost imperceptibly – but i have NO doubt, deliberately – it was getting louder. I was on the phone at that point, using the relative silence to talk to a friend. Then another curious thing happened. With a “pop” another sound errupted in the soundscape, a soft broadband noise, which I realized were the centre fountains. But of course! Now the environment was complete. As if something in my brain clicked with recognition, I realized this was it – the final ingredient, and as the space was quickly filling out with people, whose voices were now echoing and reverberating inside the walls and up the sunny dome, my listening position snapped into place. It’s usual place.
As I get older it doesn’t scare me so much, as it did, perhaps when I was younger and naive, when I realize just how conditioned I am by my environment and by culture, in general. I find students always have so much more reticence to accepting that, as if by denying, you resist it. So, to come back, I had this really crisp feeling of literally being “placed” into a certain position – not only as a listener (tho that is one of the material-semiotic roles) but as a person, as a subject, as the piece that fits into the puzzle in a specific way. What that soundscape told me was to blend in to the medley of unidentified noise, to not stand out, to enjoy and let myself be carried onto that ambience everywhere, to feel safe and enclosed, to feel like i am in my own bubble even though i am so close to other people, we are all separate agents in this space; When the fountains came on, it is only then I realized they weren’t on before, and thought about how odd that would have been – had I paid more conscious listening attention. I know fountains are meant to mask … what? unpleasant reminders we are surrounded by other people? … but in my h.o. they add so much unnecessary noise inside, especially in the sort of resonant chambers that malls are.
Really, when you look at mall architecture, it does share a lot with churches. Not sensible neo-christian churches. No, gothic, Catholic monolithic domes evokative of the mysic powers of the holy spirit. Designed to enhance and carry the voices of priests, to make them reverberate god-like through the souls of their parishioners, churches are nevertheless reciprocal spaces. It is structured when and how one communicates in them, a call-and-response. In malls, music is the faceless “voice” of god, its messages – feel happy, now feel cool; now feel relaxed, now buy! We are the faceless parishioners who never get to, or want to even respond with any of our own voices. I don’t think it ever occurs to us. And while churches encourage the togetherness of shared silence, the constructed mall ambience seems to encourage distance, separation and function.
I know this probably sounds like a bleak reflection but I actually feel moved and elated for having made it.