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Seeing or Dreaming? Hacking Dallas

by | Oct 15, 2017

I was joined for this Hack by around 40 people from Dallas. As we walked the city and I posed some questions they shared their own insights into the place, its history and its many meanings. I took a lot from our conversations – these reflections here are obviously my own, but are shaped by the great people I met.

We began at the Giant Eyeball on Main Street. A few years ago the Pretorian building – the first skyscraper in Dallas – was torn down as part of a redevelopment by the Joule hotel opposite. The Eyeball – a 30ft high, vein-streaked sculpture – now sits in its place.

Next to the Eyeball is a striking mosaic on the facade of St Jude’s Catholic church. It is the work of renowned 20th century designer, György Kepes, who founded the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT. Kepes was deeply influenced by Gestalt philosophy and his groundbreaking works related to the impact of what we see on our psychology. There is an obvious resonance between the giant Eyeball and Kepes’ approach to vision and the human psyche. This small space on Main Street is visually arresting, with architectural styles and vibrant public art captured and reflected in the giant glass-fronted building behind it. It is also a symbol of the changing city, as property re-development pushes poorer people – disproportionately people of colour – out of the city to make way for luxury hotels and boutique retail experiences.

According to Kepes, light is humankind’s most primal energy
Everything we see is always a reflection of light

Across the road is Pegasus Plaza, overshadowed by the Magnolia Hotel, formerly the HQ of Magnolia Oil and still home to the giant neon pegasus sign that watches the city from its rooftop. Pegasus is the symbol of Dallas and can be seen all over the city on signs and lamp-posts. The Pegasus Plaza is dedicated to the mythology and the story of Dallas it represents.

In Greek mythology Pegasus, a winged horse, is born from the head of Medusa when she is killed by Perseus. Wherever Pegasus’ hooves struck the ground a spring would burst forth, most famously on Mount Helicon of the Muses. Pegasus Plaza is built on the site of a spring with its waters flowing around the landscaped paving. Large, polished red-granite rocks are etched with descriptions of each Muse. Two of the largest tell the story. From the pain of death springs the hope of new life; so it was for Dallas they say. From the pain of Native American slaughter, the new city was founded and grew. It’s hard not to feel that history might have not been quite so simple or noble as that.

We noted that Pegasus is also famous for his part in slaying the Chimera. The ultimate archetypal hybrid, the Chimera – part lion, part goat, part snake – represents the chaos of multiple identities. To kill the Chimera is to erase hybridity in the name of purity. This feels to me a major part of the American political narrative right now. White American culture claims its own pure ‘American-ness’ over against the hybrid identities of others, whether American-Indian, African-American, Hispanic/Latino-Amercian, Muslim-American, etc. And just like the story of Pegasus this slaughter of hybridity involves the disavowal of one’s own hybrid identity. Pegasus, of course, is part-horse, part-bird.

So the symbol of Pegasus in Dallas is ambivalent, pointing both to the exclusion of Others and to the difficulty of recognising our own Otherness.

Neon Pegasus watches over the city

From Pegasus Plaza we walked West down Main St to the JFK Memorial. It’s a startlingly simple cuboid structure which appears to almost float above the ground. JFK was assassinated just a block away on his way out of downtown Dallas. The city struggled for years to shake off the legacy, some told me, carrying it almost as a shame.

One of our number was alive at the time and remembered his experience hearing the news while at school. He reflected that the assassination seemed like a turning point in the American story: a loss of innocence that led to a progressive loss of trust in America’s institutions.

“Thousands of citizens contributed support, money and effort. It is not a memorial to the pain and sorrow of death, but stands as a permanent tribute to the joy and excitement of one man’s life.” – from the official signage

Next to the memorial is a large red-brick Gothic Revivalist castle. It is now a museum of the city, but was originally the city’s courthouse. A number of folk reflected on how the courthouse is familiar symbol of permanence in a still-young and fast-changing city. And yet there is a question about the value and stability of institutions raised by the JFK memorial and the loss of innocence it represents. The effect of architectural styles in the space reinforce this question. On the one hand the institutional symbol is delightful; on the other it is a fantasy castle that according to today’s architectural norms doesn’t demand to be taken seriously. The very minimalist Modernist style of the memorial is from an architectural tradition that specifically rejected the hubris of Romantic styles.

Because everybody needs a Gothic Revivalist fantasy castle

I reflected with the group how startling I found the memorial compared to other imperial shrines. The assassination of JFK happened when American was arguably at the height of its global power. The reach of America’s military and economic influence easily rivalled the empire of Rome. In a very real sense the murder of JFK was like the death of a Caesar. And yet this memorial is so simple; it is not a vast temple to his glory, or to the nation. And it’s not as if America doesn’t build Roman-scale shrines to its leaders – the Lincoln or Washington memorials in DC are good examples. So this relatively small, simple cenotaph in downtown Dallas is unusual. There were many reflections on this theme, about the humility of the man, the difference between the US as a democracy and Rome as an effective dictatorship, about the vision of a nation that is bigger than just the Presidential office.

Towards the South-West the Reunion Tower stands proud from the skyline, a tall thin concrete structure with a spherical top. The origin of the name is unusual, to say the least! In the mid-19th century, a group of early European socialists, disappointed by the failure of revolutionary thinking in their own nations, and under the pressure of government crack-downs, set off to the Western American Frontier to establish a utopian community there. La Réunion lasted all of about two years on its plot of land west of Dallas, before lack of water and too many snakes forced them to give up! Who knows what the tower’s namers meant by it – if anything. But it’s an interesting symbol for Dallas, and this space by the memorial. On the one hand it’s a tribute to the triumph of American capitalism over the demands of socialism, a story few places tell better than Dallas. And yet it also preserves the memory of a dream, of a different, fairer, more democratic society; that at one time European Socialists looked to America as comrades.

Socialist dreaming

It seems to me – and of course this is just my outsider view – that America lives national life somewhere between dream and reality. The so-called ‘American Dream’, that anyone can make it here, always burns bright, but there are other dreams at work: about America’s ‘Light to the World’ democracy, and its benign role as global ‘Police’. It could be said the political moment America find herself in right now, in 2017, is in part a waking up – finding that reality is part-nightmare.

The JFK memorial is then perhaps also an ambivalent symbol. On the one hand its simplicity, its openness, is a testament to a story of hope – to a dream that cannot be killed. And yet, like Pegasus, it disavows its own complicity in sustaining the reality that the dream seeks to escape. All around the memorial are vast, gleaming temples to economic growth, symbols of the concentration of wealth into the hands of a few and the corruption of the political establishment with money that has eroded American political trust. No modern President, JFK included, has succeeded in curbing that trajectory.

One of the central ideas in Gestalt psychology is that our phenomenological experience is truer than the stories we then make from it. Dreams of a different society can give us hope, but they can also alienate us from ourselves and the actual life we encounter. To see we must open our eyes. A few people noticed the difficultly in finding stories of slavery or segregation in the city, or of the deep history of the land before Dallas and the peoples who lived there and suffered from European colonisation. The Hack from the Giant Eyeball to the JFK Memorial created, for me, a Labyrinth that left me wondering where I am dreaming and not seeing. And how I can wake up and see more clearly without losing hope in dreams of a better world.