Motels

‘Motels’, exhibition catalogue essay in Motel, edited by Paul McInnes, Canberra Contemporary Art Space, pp3 – 5. ISBN 1 875526 67 6

The book Australia: From the Dawn of Time to the Present Day, published in 1964, devotes a whole page to what it calls “The Motel Trend”.

Domestic travel in Australia has taken a tremendous upsurge during the last six years, the greatest contributing factor being the ease of securing comfortable accommodation at moderate prices. This has been brought about by the advent of motels, which have virtually taken command of the accommodation race. Australia’s largest accommodation organisation is Motels of Australia Ltd., a company which operates a chain of Travelodge and Caravilla motels stretching from Northern Queensland to Tasmania and across the continent to Western Australia, with the capacity to comfortably rest some 4,000 travellers every night. The architectural pattern of these motels tends to variety, but all offer individual car parking facilities, and each has an air of charming informality which ensures complete privacy and comfort. Every room is equipped with tea making facilities, and special features include refrigeration, and bedside control of air conditioning, radio, television and background music. Many of these motels have swimming pools and a smart and comfortable restaurant provides first class meals for travellers and their guests.[1]

The Travelodge motel chain was itself part of a chain of related socio-cultural phenomena in Australia: post war prosperity, the family Holden, a national highway system, the American style business franchise, and technologised modernity.

Yet the motel didn’t arrive in Australia without a considerable amount of dark psychic baggage. In Hollywood’s imagination highway motels were already seedy, sexy and dangerous. They were places where those an the lam hid out, bending one or two slats of the venetian blinds with an anxious finger. They were places where blood was staunched and wounds hastily dressed as sweat broke out. By the time Janet Leigh made her particularly bad choice of motel accommodation in Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil, 1958, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, 1960, the motel’s place as a mythic site of delay or decay was fully established.

Motels are so mythically rich becasue they are paradoxically suspended in the tension between travelling and lodging, propulsion and pause, extension and encirclement. The word ‘motel’ itself, like its most famous corporate brand name, is constructed by overlapping two antonyms: the motel is a hotel for lodging the travelling motor car. Generically, motels are nondescript places built nowhere in particular. They are either left on a lost highway after the new freeway has been built, or found just over the rise beyond the edge of town. Their location does not follow a geo-cartographic logic as much as a spatio-narrative one. They emerge out of darkness and intrude themselves into the driver’s peripheral vision just when they are needed the most—or perhaps the least. They are narrative interruptions, psycho-sexual vortexes lying in wait on the edge of someone’s story.

To Meaghan Morris motels are “transit spaces, charged with narrative potential. A motel should promise a scenario, and exactly the one you want: a hiding place, a good night’s sleep, a stint of poignant alienation, a clandestine adventure, time off housework, a monastic retreat … promise that need not have anything to do with what one subsequently does. Veering off the road and into the drive of any motel setting, we seek shelter, yes, and safety, but we also assess a script.[2] Australia: From the Dawn of Time to the Present Day tried (in vain as it turned out) to rewrite these scripts into just one — controlled domestic comfort. Travelodge incorporated ‘20th century concepts of comfort and design’ into their motels, their ‘charming informality’ was produced technologically and systematically.[3] Their architectural pattern did not, in fact, tend to variety; instead it was self-referentially repeated, with serialised differences, along the chain. By architecturally subscribing to a myth of the ‘Modern Universal’[4] they reterritorialised the Australian open road, and domesticated its randomly awaiting terrors. It is the psychic reassurance of standardised industrial management that I remember most from my few childhood motel experiences. For instance to order breakfast you ticked boxes on a slip of paper — a ‘continental breakfast’; cereal (in a little box) and juice; toast and tea (or coffee); or bacon and eggs — and left it at reception. The next morning a laden tray was anonymously slipped through a hatch by the door.

But it only took a few decades for Australia’s motley travelling public to do a thorough rewrite on the original Travelodge script and introduce desires and compulsions far beyond domesic comfort. By the 1990s precocious painters were OD-ing in seaside motels, prominent politicians were having fatal coronaries whilst on the job in Sydney motels, and mad letter bombers were hiding out in Canberra motels. Australian films like Kiss or Kill were also nationalistically inflecting the Hollywood myth of motels as the sites of ‘road-runner angst’[5] by placing them in outback settings.

Motel rooms are always very clean, but they are never entirely clean. For the psychic well being of their guests, motels have to erase the presence of the previous occupant. Surfaces are wiped and air freshener is sprayed, the first square of toilet paper is folded into a point, and a hygienic sash is placed over the toilet seat. Only rarely do guests encounter the abject horror an a unnamed, unknown, previous occupant’s pubic hair in the shower stall; but nonetheless the ghostly emanations of all the previous occupants, each as diaphanous as the residue of Jiff on a ceramic tile, slowly accumulate in each motel room. No matter how starched and stiff their sheets, sleeping at a motel is simultaneously private and communal; serial not only spatially, but temporally.

In the particular case of the Canberra City Motor Inn (formerly, as can be ascertained by the redundant signage left around the place, the Manuka Motor Inn, formerly a Flag Inn, formerly a Travelodge) the temporal accretion of historical presences is met, coming the other way as it were, by the crumbling, flaking decay of the building itself. This gives a pathos to the motel, an atmosphere at once full of the presence of the past, and empty of any projection into the future. In a sense this motel is equivalent to the many other spatial and temporal lacunae in our urban fabric: for instance those undefinable areas of waste ground on the edge of cities, or those abandoned inner urban industrial areas before they have been nominated for redevelopment as trendy housing or historical precincts. These littoral zones have long been used by artists, writers and photographers because they are empty places but potential spaces. Artists love to write new scripts for these locations and fill them with their own stories, images and associations.

This particular motel, however, is still being used. The artists installing work here will be guests amongst other guests (who are mostly lone public servants saving money on their Travel Allowances). Rooms are still cleaned. The systems originally set up to ensure domestic comfort still, more or less, operate like clockwork, even if the motel itself has run down. All this automatic activity gives a air, not of charming informality, but of suspended animation, like a space station that has drifted out of its orbit.

So this motel is not, yet, a picturesque ruin. Its state of functioning decay suspends its historical potential. The real probabilities that await it, of being renovated, or historically ‘themed’, or even bulldozed, are held in abeyance. But, ironically, the various uses to which it will be put by the artists in this exhibition presage all of those potential futures, which it will eventually be up to the motel’s corporate owners to plan — with an eye to the bottom line. Any artist who memorialises a poignant childhood motel memory, invites the finality of the bulldozer. Any artist who is pierced, as I was, by mnemonic punctums such as the painted corner reinforcements on the weary traveller kangaroo’s Globite suitcase in the original motel street sign, invites the reifying connoisseurship of the scavenging collector. Any artist who delights in the Brady Bunch styling of the architectural facade invites the trendy retro-marketeer to renovate the motel into a hyper-kitsch image of itself for the newly rich camp-savvy tourist market.

The franchise chains of the sixties have transcended themselves and are now a universal presence in our collective memory. But, at the same time, on every day of the week any piece of our built environment is up for grabs in the crass politics of urban renewal. This project exists at the necessary intersection of those two planes.

 

Martyn Jolly


[1]Australia: From the Dawn of Time to the Present Day, Oswald Ziegler, Sydney, 1964.p43

[2] Meaghan Morris, “At Henry Parkes Motel”, Too Soon Too Late: History in Popular Culture, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1998. p32.

[3]Australia: From the Dawn of Time to the Present Day. p43

[4] Morris, p35

[5]Ibid. p34

 

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