Ambient Parking Lot chronicles the triumphs (rare) and mishaps (frequent) of an ensemble of experimental sound artists. Blurbed as “part fiction, part earnest mockumentary,” the book is first a comedy of manners, that brand of satire aimed at taking down the pretentions of a particular social group. In this case, Pamela Lu targets art movements of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, gleefully eviscerating avant-garde pieties, cherished literary truths, and pop-cultural bromides alike. And yet, despite these satirical hijinks, Ambient Parking Lot ultimately raises questions that might apply more broadly to those of us who enjoy taking our news and our humor in one fell Colbertian swoop.
Speaking as a manic chorus, the Ambient Parkers zip from one artistic stance to the next, all the while recording album after ambient album in parking lots:
The economy collapsed and our theory was discarded in favor of an aesthetic of banal scarcity. Secular pragmatism replaced the faith-based work ethic, which had once led to the lush arpeggios of grocery bags being loaded into single-driver vehicles and trunk lids thumping to a close in the late afternoon sunlight.
Ambient Parking Lot might have remained here, a witty parlor-room drama for the experimental art set, but Lu ups the stakes early on by forcing the pressures of our moment into the Parkers’ aesthetic end zone. “One day, without warning, terrorists attacked several government buildings, including the DMV,” the Parkers report. “The injuries we witnessed there illustrated just how easily the luxury zone of the parking lot could be extended to slaughter.” Though Lu does not say so explicitly, the attack clearly conjures 9/11: “Over the next eighteen months, we were flooded with media images showing the impact of retaliatory airstrikes and a coordinated ground campaign on so-called enemy soil.”
For all their theorizing, the Parkers aren’t equipped to respond to the attacks or to the retaliations. But this doesn’t stop them from trying. They quickly organize a troupe of dancers to “stage Butoh-inflected body movements simulating the trauma of violence” in (of course) a parking lot, while audiotapes play ambient sounds of convoy trucks. Everything is almost par for the course until one of the dancers takes the show further than planned, executing a twelve-hour performance from within the wreckage of a car. The performance shakes onlookers and participants alike, as if they have “witnessed—in the cosmic space of time between the onslaught of disaster and the reinstatement of the parking lot—the living performer become a thing.”
The dancer’s invocation of death as an embodied, present reality rather than a set of “media images” brings the political violence into uncomfortably sharp focus, provoking a crisis for the Parkers:
We lost faith in the radical ideals of experimental art. Highbrow culture repulsed us, even as upper middlebrow culture drew us like moths to a flame. In our quest for timeless truisms in the face of mortal suffering, we developed an unhealthy attachment to confessional poetry.
“Confessional poetry” might qualify as the sincerest poetical stance of all, but Lu turns it into satirical kindling. What meaning could we hope to find in that negligible gap between “highbrow” and “upper middlebrow”? The problem with sincerity, Lu suggests, is that it so easily collapses into just another story, full of its own tropes and traps.
If sincerity is off the table, how might an artist respond to political crises? Here, Lu vets another time-honored tactic of the avant-garde—namely, looking to a notionally more authentic culture as a way to critique the West. Enter the Station Master, a radio host who writes to the Parkers and begs them to cease pestering him with their “unsolicited stream of MP3s,” then proceeds to wax nostalgic for his aesthetically adventurous youth, when he sought musical authenticity outside of his bankrupt North American culture. As the trope dictates, the Station Master traveled “all the way to the heart of Asia,” where he recorded “hoarse, haunting folk tunes” until his fantasy fell apart: he found Western pop culture everywhere, and even the folk songs’ “exotic vibrations” turned out to be “tourist trap fakes.”
For Lu, both sincerity and authenticity miss the point; what becomes relevant is how our confessional poems and fantasies of authenticity operate; how they subtly shape our views of self and other; how they suggest courses of action, artistic and otherwise.
What flickers below the ironic surface—call it hope or call it grief—gathers and resurfaces with crushing impact in the penultimate chapter. In “Death of an Automotive Dancer,” the butoh dancer’s voice broadcasts a new tenor, singular and direct. If the dancer doesn’t quite confess, she at least confides and reflects that coming of age as an artist “was one part productivity, three parts career climbing.”
Weary (and wary) of climbing, the dancer comes to an existential (or maybe spiritual) turning point after the parking lot performance, as she discusses during a radio interview that the Parkers happen to hear:
For most of my adult life, I had been vaguely aware of something unreal at the core of my persona, a faulty premise teetering on the verge of collapse. It was something like corruption or neglect, or some insidious combination of these two qualities, and I shared it in common with practically everyone I knew. This was the essential material I was working with in my choreographies. And although my greatest aspiration was to someday punch through these qualities and reach their opposites, the most I could do at the time was go deeper inside the negative material, to amplify it for my audience and draw it out into plain view.
Here lies the ars poetica of Ambient Parking Lot. Buildings, economies, and art careers collapse, as the Parkers are adept at pointing out, but so do selves. Neither naive in her sincerity nor caught up in a quest for authenticity at another culture’s expense, the dancer looks inward and outward at once, hinting at last at something like negative capability— the ability to act (or, in this case, perform) in the absence of absolutes, in the wake of vanishing certainties.