Text by Mahfuz Sultan
In 1969 Berhanemeskel Reda, the gifted young student and de facto leader of the Marxist reading group the Crocodile Society, boarded a flight from Addis Ababa to Lake Tana and, in a state of poetic reverie, skyjacked it in the name of the revolution.
He hoped to escape to Sudan and from there to join the post-revolutionary ferment in Algiers, where a small coterie of leftist exiles languished in the vacated homes of pieds noirs and staged fashionable photo shoots for the fawning international press. Unable to trust the pilots to take him across the border and incapable of reading the in-flight navigational instruments himself, he ordered the pilots to follow the Blue Nile from its source at Lake Tana until he could see the houses bleached bone white in the desert sun. Then and only then would he know for certain that they had crossed into Sudan and out of danger.
A skyjack is a syncopated act; arrhythmic and out of step with the flight maps and shared international schedules that grid the skies.
It is a gunshot fired in frustration at the consoles that marshal all the idiosyncratic rhythms of the world into measurable, and therefore, controllable quantities. As Reda chased the Nile through Ethiopia, he returned to the earliest forms of architectural drawing: follow the river to its source; chase the north star; cut a path through the forest into the stinging saltwater wind until you reach the sea.
That same year, Leila Khaled interrupted TWA Boeing 707 on its way from Rome to Tel Aviv. She wore white bellbottoms and a white hat; she carried a pistol and a hand grenade. While diverting the flight to Damascus, Khaled took the plane on a seven minute detour over occupied Haifa so she could look down at her homeland. This was a digression within a digression—a moment of arrhythmia within the meticulously planned skyjacking of an already meticulously planned journey. Her message was clear: if she could not hold her strip of shore, then she would hold the skies above it. Reda and Khaled read the reflection of the sky in the stillwater of the blue planet. They navigated like birds using the magnetic field of the earth to cross the skies.
In a series of colored plans and perspectives titled Aerial Paris (1989), the visionary architect Lebbeus Woods imagines a new city lofted above Paris like those birds tethered mysteriously to the earth. A place peopled with the permanent refugees of history; those that took to the skies once their dreams of reclaiming a home on earth were ground to dust and the only dignity left them was view of home from above.
Aerial Paris is a city of scrap metal kites assembled from the detritus left behind by war and climate disaster. These zeppelins wave massive sheets the size of landscapes through the earth’s magnetosphere in order to generate enough static electricity to stay afloat. During the day, they filter colored light down to terrestrial Paris staining entire neighborhoods the color of the sky. The buildings catch in the wind and drift far apart or float peacefully above the cloud cover as storms rattle the world below.
This is an architecture of permanent flux, unmappable because it always moves and reconfigures itself. It literally vibrates in a sea of static electricity. And everything touches. Cables carrying electromagnetic pulses crisscross between buildings. They dangle thousands of feet in the air, so low they brush the canopy of the city. They connect every single element in the floating world even when they carry no charge, even when they are mere ropes. Woods imagines a city released from its obligation to freeze the rhythms of the day into rows of columns marking time and enfilades that recede from view to the sound of footsteps. A city that hovers silently above places that face south to trap winter light, where life is spent ambulating from room to room in search of cool air as the sun travels across the sky. Aerial Paris was not designed to slow or futilely resist the dangerous mutability of the world.
Again in his San Francisco Houses (1995-97) and Terrain (1999) cycles, Woods creates a world of perpetual arrhythmia. An alternative San Francisco so frequently racked by earthquakes that its inhabitants have learned to use its electromagnetic energy to power their city. Their scientists have devised a machine that deliberately creates seismic disturbances and offers its population some measure of control over what would otherwise be an impossible way of life. The buildings are already fragmented and broken, perpetually shaking, and designed to absorb the rhythm of the quake rather than resist it. They shake in step with the terrain and the inhabitants feel almost nothing.
In these collaged photographs and drawings, controlled ruins and recognizable forms from our world disappear across the page into lines of force, number patterns, and illegible scrawl that read as both sentences and waveforms. I imagine that the earthquake has become a god and the scientists of the U.S. Geological Survey its high priests. In this alternate cosmology, scientists believe that the quake is a vast, inscrutable drawing machine that speaks in Morse code; that the rhythmic tapping of the seismograph is a divine language that they work around the clock to decipher. At the edge of fault lines, small groups of electronic musicians, linguists, and outcasts voluntarily live in small cracks. They play glass bead games and make religious art. They form drumming cults that answer the whisper of their god. In other more enlightened parts of the city, people have ceased to believe that there is any earthquake at all. They claim that the world has always shivered slightly as it turns on its axis in frigid space. At dinner parties, they whisper that it is the invention of a small group of technocrats that use the perpetual threat of a calamitous quake to maintain power.
The city resembles a sprawling airplane graveyard, as if Aerial Paris crashed into the sublunary world after the magnetosphere had nothing left to give and all the flying machines were scrapped and recombined to form buildings. As Berhanemeskel Reda must have known sitting in his cell in 1979, mere hours before his execution, after nearly a decade of waging war against time, seizing flights and trains, attacking merchant routes and military convoys, all skyjacking ends in the fall and the fall has its own rules and rhythms just like flight.
In 2000, David Hammons staged his Global Fax Festival. For five months, faxes sent from all over the world poured out of nine fax machines suspended from the cast iron arches of the Palacio de Cristal in Madrid.
The paper echoed the falling leaves of the trees in the El Retiro park outside. It was rain set to the rhythm of human communication. Photographs of the exhibition show children playing in the paper storm and people lying on their back, in states of poetic abandon, staring up at the generic office machinery framed by clouds and sky. The faxes were love messages, music scores, scraps from magazines and newspapers, poems, letters, and drawings from artists indistinguishable from the other pieces of paper.
Hammons transformed the fax machines into musical instruments played to the irregular rhythm of incoming messages. Everyone that possessed a fax number became a member of the orchestra. For the last five days of the show, Butch Morris led an improvisational concert comprised of live musicians, sound recordings of the machines and the rustling of trees in the park outside. If anything, Global Fax Festival displayed how Hammons’ engagement with certain forms of seriality and improvisation blithely associated with Minimalism and Conceptual Art found their actual origin and governing logic in black improvisational music. He seized the sky inside a cast iron and glass cathedral, a temple of 19th-century industry and colonial hegemony, a partial replica of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace in London—a building many believe to be a departure point for all of modern architecture—and he made the building cry.
Nearly sixteen years earlier at Artpark in Niagara Falls, Chris Burden staged Beam Drop (1984), a performance in which a crane perched 100 feet in the sky dropped 60 steel beams into a wet concrete pool a mere 30 feet square and 3 feet deep. The crane dropped the beams one at a time, each one suspended in the air for several seconds as if taking flight before falling to the ground. After a silent fall followed by a sickening hiss, the beams vibrated back and forth in the wet concrete making drone music. As they built up in the pool, they formed a jagged, deconstructed building; an architecture of aleatory procedures and serial construction that accepted danger and arrhythmia as its governing condition much like Woods’s seismic corridors. In fact, towards the end of the original performance, one of the beams hit a hardened portion of the pool and fell to one side, crushing a movie camera.
An early sketch shows a small crane dropping beams from the top of a skyscraper. Everything is out of scale and hastily drawn; the skyscraper is too short, the crane too small, the beams impossibly large, and the concrete pool a tiny pond. On the page, before the actual performance, Burden imagined there was a building there, releasing I-beams from its crown. A work of architecture unmaking itself over a series of sixty swan dives. Burden erected a temple to architecture’s irrational other—the temple of the fall with its skyjackers and disrupters, its messy builders and its madmen.
In 1972, at the end of the golden era of skyjacking, a gentleman named D.B. Cooper politely took control of a Boeing 727 on a flight from Portland to Seattle. Dressed in suit and tie, he handed a lightly threatening note to a stewardess and showed her a bomb carefully secured in his well-organized briefcase. He demanded $200,000, four parachutes, and a refueling truck waiting on the tarmac in Seattle. During the two hours that the flight circled Seattle-Tacoma Airport and local authorities scrambled to comply with his demands, Cooper put on dark sunglasses, ordered and paid for two bourbon sodas, and offered the stewardess a tip. She seemed almost charmed by him afterwards, mentioning to reporters that she found him polite and thoughtful. As a man with neither radical political affiliations nor a history of agitation, this must have been about taking the sky. It was a gentlemen’s gamble, a form of sport much closer to bullfighting than an act of international terrorism.
On the runway he released everyone except the pilots. He told them to fly manually at 100 knots at 10,000 feet—the minimum possible airspeed to stay up—and for the cabin to remain unpressurized. When the plane landed in Reno for another refueling stop, they found that Cooper had disappeared along with the ransom money and two of his four parachutes. Because of the specific flight demands made of the pilots, it was very difficult for authorities to determine where he landed. He was subsequently never found; an architect that for a single day attacked charts and protocols, took flight and fall, then vanished completely into the sky.
ANTHONY HUBERMAN is a curator and writer based in San Francisco, where he is the Director & Chief Curator of CCA Wattis Institute. He has worked as a curator at SculptureCenter, New York, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, and the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. In 2010 he founded The Artist’s Institute in New York City.
MAHFUZ SULTAN is a writer, researcher, and designer. He is the co-founder of Clocks, a multidisciplinary research and design practice.
ARI MARCOPOULOS, born in Amsterdam, began his photographic practice on the streets of New York employing an intuitive approach that allowed seamless entry into the communities he captured on film. Taken as a whole, the volume of images Marcopoulos has produced since the early 1980s form a biographical sketch of the artist, and an intimate glimpse into that of his subjects, in the artist’s words, “edge dwellers, skaters, rap gods, athletes, kids, trees, graffiti, faces, tangles and cars.”