There comes a point for many a writer when one is driven to seek solitude, to pack up and embark on a journey in search of solitary reflection.
For some, it’s to a cabin in the woods; for others, a desert oasis, or a cloister on the highest peak of a godforsaken mountain range.
But not me.
No, my desert island is far less romantic. Far less scenic. Far less sexy. Far less . . . comfortable. It involves thousands of tons of solid steel and 4,000 miles of nothing but bitter, cold open ocean.
My place of solitude will be a freighter ship. That’s right, a freighter ship, loaded to the brim with a few thousand steel shipping containers on a 15-day trip across the North Atlantic—in the dead of winter.
Why, you might (reasonably) ask?
To confront comfort.
Confronting comfort: it’s a vague concept; one that has the potential to hold a lot of meaning should you choose to assign it, but one that also takes work to understand.
If you’ve followed the BMW Guggenheim Lab at all over the past seven months since it first launched, you’ve likely heard the phrase. It’s the overarching theme for the first cycle—the first three of nine cities the Lab will visit—and is explained by curators Maria Nicanor and David van der Leer as follows:
We live in a highly globalized and urbanized world. Yet complex urban landscapes that are increasingly intertwined through transnational and informational networks continue to be based on rigid systems of urban planning, architecture, and infrastructure. These systems have fostered an expanding homogeneity that puts at risk the relationship of our cities and urban areas with the specific conditions of their immediate context and their own past. More important, it puts at risk our relationship, as citizens and individuals, with the urban environment, affecting our sense of ownership and awareness of the space around us, and our sense that we should be able to change and improve it.
As a result, we have constructed relentless systems of consumerist comfort that alleviate the monotony of these static landscapes by blocking interaction with our surroundings. The comfort we derive from these solutions—which range from communication commodities to fancy gadgets, to privacy and security devices, to comfort food and other ways to appease our bodies—diverts the mind from the repetitive processes of everyday life in cities that at times we feel we have no possibility of changing.
Maximizing comfort has not only allowed us to cope with sometimes grueling urban conditions, but it has also become a measure of individual wealth, success, and status. Unfortunately, our irrepressible human aspiration to find ease often leads us in unsustainable directions. How can we find a balance between notions of modern comfort and the urgent need for environmentally responsible solutions that empower us as social individuals? If we were to achieve such balance through creative solutions, how would our understanding of comfort change? How would we respond to the newfound ease attained through responsible means?
But before we can think of confronting modern notions of comfort, we must first understand what comfort is in the first place. And I am the first to admit that the more I think about the word, the less I understand it—far less how it applies to the urban beast.
So I pitched a wild and crazy idea: Armed with a library of readings on comfort that originally helped inspire the theme, I would remove myself as far from the city itself as possible—and the comforts it both offers and takes away—to dig into the belly and roots of how the notion of human comfort came to be. What is comfort in the first place? Why and when did we begin to seek it? How has that desire shaped the cities we live in today? And ultimately, why does it need to be confronted? I would explore this all, of course, through a brilliant and enlightening series on the blog. A crash course in comfort, if you will.
I mean, I have to get to Berlin somehow, right?
Et voilà, here I am, six months later with a one-way ticket to Germany on the 45,000-ton Hanjin Palermo in hand, wondering what the hell I’ve gotten myself into.
In a few days (date of departure tentative due to shifting shipping schedules and . . . prevailing winds, or something) I will leave all my urban comforts behind and, tracing the same transatlantic path that the Lab itself took just a few months ago, blog my way from New York to Berlin. And, hopefully, too, to a better understanding of what this thing we call comfort really is.
Of course, this post is an attempt to tempt you to follow this series, Comfort Crash Course: 4,000 Miles of Confronting Comfort, along on the blog.
But wait!! I need one more thing from you.
My binder of readings is broad, and substantial in size.
It includes everything from Socrates and Confucius, to medical studies on “diseases of comfort,” to essays on the invention of the washing machine and on Rococo furniture design (seriously).
But it is not yet exhaustive and I’ve got a lot of time to fill in the coming weeks, so I’m soliciting suggestions. This is important: What have you read, listened to, or seen that deals in some way with the topic of comfort? Tell me any other reading materials, podcasts, video blogs, lectures, you name it, that you think I should bring along with me, either in the comments section below, on our Facebook page, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Help me build the Comfort Crash Course reading list!
I’ll be in touch again with more before I set sail. Stay tuned.
Freighter ship photo used by permission under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 License from Mr. T in DC.