The Explorer’s Club is an American Institution founded in New York City in 1904 by the survivors of Frederick Cook’s 1894 arctic expedition. Although its members are infamously eccentric (L. Ron Hubbard, for example, who carried the Club flag with him on several yachting expeditions) they have been responsible for some of Exploration’s greatest firsts: the summit of Mount Everest, the deepest point in the Ocean, the surface of the moon. Of the 202 Club flags which have journeyed into the world, some have flown at both poles, the lunar surface, and the highest peaks on Earth. It is perhaps one of the least-known, best-traveled symbols in the world.
The flag’s color-coding is fairly obvious: the red band represents courage, and the blue fidelity. The club’s initials (E.C.) and a compass rose adorn the white median, representing the institution’s worldwide influence. Of course, this association was most ideologically powerful when there were parts of the planet still left to be explored; these days, the EC mostly sponsors field research and projects which advance the “ideal that it is vital to preserve the instinct to explore.”
What does Exploration mean today? Sure, there’s NASA’s “New Vision,” the roar of commercial space-travel, the wild card that is the Internet, the new-psychedelia revival’s emphasis on inner travels. I don’t know how much these things really represent Exploration, that spirit of penetrating into a place that has never before been experienced. There’s an altruism and purpose inherent in the idea that perhaps these modern adaptations lack.
I think real Exploration now has a lot to do with “dépaysement,” a French word that I like and that doesn’t have a clear English translation. Literally, it means “dis-country-ment;” it’s the feeling of being outside of your own country, or shifted slightly outside of a recognizable place. What’s interesting about dépaysement is that it doesn’t necessarily refer to being literally outside of your own country, only that you have a completely new understanding of a familiar place. For example, every time I look at the photographs that Voyager 1 took of the other side of Saturn, I can’t even deal with the idea of living on a street, in a house. It’s all context. AsFrank O’Hara wrote, “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.”
Maybe we should be bringing the Explorer’s Club flag with us to the supermarket and into our own bedrooms, or at least be making an effort to recontextualize our habitual environments, even if it’s just by watching BBC’s The Planets. Even if we’re in the same place as we always are, or even doing the same old things in a different place, we should be aware that there’s more than one way to experience our immediate environment.
Interestingly, albeit totally irrelevantly, the Explorer’s Club flag bears a striking similarity to the French flag. The similarities end there, however, since the tricolore‘s scheme has something to do with the old Parisian coat of arms (red and blue) overpowering the traditional color of the monarchy (white).
In this spirit, I propose two auditory dépaysements. The first is an excellent lecture by Brian Eno (that I found thanks to the always topical Momus blog) on Steve Reich, slow music, ribbons around the Earth, and the Long Now. The second experience is another first for Universe: an mp3 mix compiled by “yours truly” of music that is completely incongruous with my current environment, which is a very crisp and wintry Paris. It’s also a little present for you, reader. You can download it here (26 MB and about 28 minutes, for what it’s worth). Here is the tracklist:
International Harvester – Sommarlåten (The Summer Song)
(Little Loopy Chant Interlude)
Lau Nau – Pyha Vuori
Brigitte Fontaine – Le Gougron
Van Dyke Parks – Sweet Trinidad
Gong – Flute Salad
Kemialliset Ystavat – Heavy Aura
King Sunny Adé – Ma Jaiye Oni
Spectrum – Mother Nature
Any discourse on the state of human Exploration, how to succeed with your own versions of dépaysement, or a good place for an Explorer’s flag is welcome.