Allan Kaprow’s Travelog Reinvented with MOCA

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TRAVELOG: The Original 1968 Transcript by Allan Kaprow

TRAVELOG was a traveling activity, Travelogs in my childhood were education films which explained a part of the world we didn’t know. The word travelog sounded like pedagog and ship’s log. This one explained a part of the world we thought we knew: gas stations.

It required keeping a polaroid photo and audio-tape log of driving around to gas stations in Madison, New Jersey. At each stop a tire was changed – any tire such as the front left with the spare, or the right rear with the left one – and the choice could be different each subsequent time. The reason given was up to the passengers if the attendant questioned why it was necessary.

Permission to take pictures of the process and record the tire-changing sounds was always asked, and it usually was granted since everybody liked to be thought important. The work was paid for and another station was found. This went on for half the day. About thirty-five people in ten or eleven cars participated that mid-July, 1968.

Naturally, Madison being a medium sized town, a number of gas stations were visited by more then one car in our group. It just happened that way and was amusing. Naturally too, the attendants became curious and asked questions, and we answered as we wished. At some of the stations they were worried that the gasoline companies had sent teams of investigators.

At the day’s end everyone returned to Fairleigh Dickinson University – which sponsored TRAVELOG – to show their polaroids and play their tapes. Nearly a hundred photos were projected at random on a screen and the tapes were played over a loudspeaker. We talked about our travels and traded experiences.

The next day the whole process was repeated but without cameras or tape recorders.

Some interesting things became clear which hadn’t been. Few of us had ever paid attention to gas stations. It turned out there were two types of stations. One, the older kind, was a gas-and-repairs shop, and looked like a garage with signs attached. The other was a modern, brushed-aluminum and plastic affair which mainly pumped gas.

The first kind was a social center on a small scale; lots of cars parked around, tools, old tires, grease stains. The owner was in charge, a man usually in his late forties; his younger assistants were hot-rodders or bikers and tended to come from lower middle class backgrounds. Besides those who worked there, there were hangers-on, truckers and others similarly belonging to the automotive life. A few girlfriends also hung around drinking soda pop from the vending machine.

The second type of station was impersonal, was served not by an owner but by one or two employees who, though they would do minimal work such as changing a tire, were there to operate the pumps and process the bills and credit cards. There was next to no social life, few parked cars, and the places were very, very clean with well-lighted toilets. They were decorated shells, large facades for advertising the gas. The station was a three-dimensional billboard, a theater setting.

From conversations along the way we gathered that the older station was giving out to the modern one. The owners felt anxious. The young attendants were generally surly or indifferent, perhaps aware that their jobs led nowhere. They changed the tired aggressively and incompetently. One owner said that care maintenance and repair were things of the past, not economical.

On the other hand the “clean machine” attendants had no emotional investment in their stations. A few were college students earning summer money. One said that probably all stations would go the way of his station and would become completely self-service in time.

What are you trying to do, they asked, you’re college people aren’t you, it’s a TV gag isn’t it? Sometimes we said we were doing a Happening and then that had to be explained. It was easier to say we were doing research for the university because then the men didn’t mind the cameras and tape machines. We were on an outing and at the same time becoming aware that we were conducting a study. How do you conduct a study, I wondered, and remain part of what you study?

Another thing that we found out was that the cameras and tape recorders transformed hazy occurrences into documentary clarity – different and better then if the machines hadn’t been used. There were aide-memories that literally framed moments out of real time and that could be recalled indefinitely. I was curious to learn if the experience would become a photographic and tape-rerecorded experience.

The second day when we went out again to reproduce the activity without machines, it was no longer as festive or highlighted by uniqueness. It was a bit tedious. We weren’t receiving acknowledgement for what we were doing. We seemed like any other motorist. The machines had been costumes to insure permission to do something unnecessary. There were guarantees of interest and response about the ordinary. Some of the group chose not to do it at all. But those who did concurred that the memory of the polaroids and tapes caused each new tire change to be seen as a picture and heard as a recording. For some time afterwards, well into the next year, stops at gas stations restimulated mental playbacks of what we did.

There was another thought. Besides being field work in sociology and psychology TRAVELOG was a transportation ritual. Car culture in America. The endless road. New wheels for old. Pit stops for repairs. The pause that refreshes. Gas stations our roadside shrines. Documents as sacred souvenirs.

-AK 1968