Here and No Elsewhere

The forces of today prefer a lesser, not greater, outdoors

Text by Shumon Basar

I'm beholding in a shopping mall. Outside, it is too hot. A heat that bounces off the desert, all the way from a ripening sun. Inside this confusingly gargantuan mall, it is not hot. It is chilled. Most of my life I want to throttle the neck of the person who invented air conditioning, for making billions of us sick with his chemically suffused freshness. Today I want to hug him - in a manly way - and say "thank you" for saving us from the punishing sun outside. Thank you for making my modern life so modern.

As I am trying to mentally conjure the mystery air-conditioning man and the circumstances of his eureka moment - was he sick of perspiring in front of prospective paramours? - I stare at the scene ahead of me. Framed in proscenium perfection, a line of holiday attired multi-generation folk hold their cameras high. Freezing the view in front of them. Which happens to be frozen already. Sub-zero. Snow.

Behold, Ski Dubai - the city's infamous indoor ski slope, replete with Swiss gingerbread chalets and genuine novice bruises. The real draw, however, is watching it all from out here, through the thick, sad glass from where you see the even sadder cracked glass on the other side. The temperature difference between the blaring outside and the snowy inside is to blame. Nature obeys.

"Caspar David Friedrich," I gasp, "It's like his painting, Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer [Wanderer Above a Sea of Mist]." The one where a besuited savant confronts the terrifying beauty of widescreen nature. Hand on hip, supping up the sublime. "Isn't that what's going on here?" I wonder, while a fake log burns close to me in an ever faker fireplace. The wanderers who assemble to gaze down upon Ski Dubai are (less sartorial) analogues to Friedrich's Romantic champion, with one additional upgrade. Instead of individual versus vastness, here is the huddled mass of mass tourism. Not contemplating, but digitally capturing the manufactured marvel of pseudo-snow settled absurdly and defiantly in the bosom of desert. Everywhere we look, or even choose not to look, what used to be the outdoors has either become distressingly forlorn through neglect or transformed into an unthreatening indoor space. Jacques Derrida once famously said: "There is no outside to the text." Today, there is just no outside.

Flee from pastoral

Remember 2006. Frantic media blasts, because, for the first time ever, more than 50% of the world's population were now living in cities. Statisticians extrapolated further and faster. Cities, they said, are the terminal destination for humanity's future. Mega-cities. Cities from zero. Divided, gated, Balkanized cities, groaning under the pressure of serving too many people with too few resources. And where would all these newly baptised urbanites hail from? The countryside. Unused farmers. Factory fall-outs. Because, as we know, free market democracies are fed by and to the middle classes. More middle class - more city. More city - less… what?

Post-industrialised capitalism doesn't romanticise the countryside the way the Khmer Rouge did. For them, the countryside was communist salvation. Now that is unimaginable as a utopia. Instead, it has become skyscraper this, superfast train that. Networked urban hubs that store precious information in The Cloud. And where is that, exactly? Home improvements retailer B&Q opened its largest store in China to cater for all the new condominium owners in cities whose names remain unknown and, embarrassingly, unpronounceable to the rest of us. While these numbers boom - buying more iPhones than anywhere else in the world - the vast majority of the Chinese are still in impoverished countryside. This remains the stark difference between vision and actuality in populous countries. The mobilisation of the masses is uneven, even if the simple statistic above makes it sound a lot more straightforward.

For the last 20 years, the old-fashioned, fully functioning outdoors has been under attack at both ends of the imaginary spectrum. The United States may have been economically forced to give up its space explorations, but China and India are picking up where the Cold War ended. Space, the moon, Mars: future outposts of cash-flash Asia. Out there really will be Out There.

The other realm that has been vociferously colonised is one we cannot see. Nano-technology invades and guides our lives and bodies at a scale that is so pervasive it becomes invisible. J.G. Ballard saw this coming in the '60s, and made it the doctrine of his prophetic science fiction. Just as man was able to physically exit Planet Earth, Ballard said that the most important frontier was the envelope of our bodies, the insides of our minds and souls. You are the contested territory fought over by Google and Facebook. You are a here that they want to own. How is that for a neo-60s conspiracy theory?

Not content with colonising the great beyond and the infinite depths of people's molecular structures, the forces of today won't let the last surviving species of outdoors maintain dignified composure. Every time I hear the phrase "public space" I choke a little. It is usually cited by middle-class crusaders mentally stuck on outmoded sociology. They tend to buy their food at elitist farmers' markets (another species of outdoors turned indoors) and their shoes at Prada. What they refuse to acknowledge is that the logic governing access and behaviour in shopping malls and gated communities is the dominant logic applied to almost every outdoor space today. We don't need Tahrir Square in January 2011 to tell us that freedom is always qualified by those in power. The public are allowed their space as long as they politely abide the illusion of obedience. A roundabout or park is benign until it is the symbol of mass uprising.

Vengefully remote

Away from the cultured outdoors that mankind increasingly regulates, what of distant nature?

She has a death wish. Against us. The iceberg that killed the Titanic's passengers was 15,000 years old and had travelled for 3,000 years to arrive at the precise position that would be re-enacted by Leonardo diCaprio several decades later. That is forward planning. The tsunami that wrought devastation to northern Japan in March 2011 was just another tragic reminder of the vengeful power stored in nature's great outdoors.

And what happens when we venture here, to escape the mess that humans call the city? You are woken by the screams of your teenage friends being hunted down by Anders Breivik, miles away from everyone else, with only the winter-thinned forests of Utøya to save you.

If it was the perceived invasion of Islamofascism that propelled Breivik to his heinous actions; for Theodore Kaczynski (aka The Unabomber) it is said that he began his terror campaign after watching the wilderness around his Montana home being destroyed by big business development. Bhophal, Chernobyl, factories in Shenzhen. Epic despoliation that leaves vast areas of outdoors perpetually polluted. In Lessons of Darkness, Werner Herzog presents us with the ravaged oil fields of Kuwait, post- the first Gulf War. Cataclysmic, sublime, vast. People wield puny hoses against the spewing flames. Desert turns sticky black. Hell on earth.

Herzog is Caspar David Friedrich with a camera, the 21st-century German Romantic with none of the cuddliness of 19th-century Romanticism. He propels his body where otherwise only depressive penguins go, where grizzly bears lay down the law, where albino alligators are the strange by-product of nuclear power stations. It is in his countless documentaries that we gawp at the great outdoors for what it is: a persistent enemy to be tamed, internalised, captured. Turned into a lesser outdoors - with handrails, security cameras, souvenir stalls and painted clouds - which we then try to neuter with canon-propelled ions to clear the airborne pollutants, as witnessed in Beijing during the last Olympics.

As the liberal dream of a middle-class world turns into the nightmare of ever-increasing economic polarisation, we may yet witness the revenge of the outdoors upon us. For every surveillance-protected, gilded mansion, slum substance increases exponentially. The insides of people's lives spill out into the streets, an accumulation of foreboding foreclosures, impossible to contain, just as fast as snow piles up on desert ski slopes. You say you want out? We have nowhere left to go. 

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (1817).
© SHK/ Hamburger Kunsthalle/ bpk. Photography Elke Walford

  • Here and No Elsewhere