Thousand Mile Colosseum

The Los Angeles freeway system is one of the most carefully filmed locations on the planet. The total number of cameras permanently dedicated to watching it can only be estimated; and the fate of those uneventful films is almost ritualistic: temporary storage, then erasure.
But occasionally there’s some action – and the true magic of the system begins.

LA’s unacknowledged cinema – its highway network – was the focus of a recent article, by Tad Friend, in The New Yorker. During the OJ chase of 1994, Friend writes, “from the cameras above, the customary vantage for tracking the city’s televised pursuits, you could see that this most sprawling and motorized of our great metropolitan areas is a huge web that is easily apprehended from the air – some forty police and TV helicopters keep busy doing just that – and that it is not the roadways but their surveillance that never ends.” (My emphasis). Or, as Mike Davis writes in City of Quartz: “thousands of residential rooftops have been painted with identifying street numbers, transforming the aerial view of the city into a huge police grid.”
In other words, whether operated by FOX, CNN, or the LAPD, traffic helicopters give Los Angeles an urban coherence that few drivers and pedestrians may ever understand – till they see it on TV.

Within those surveilled streets – what Friend calls LA’s “public stage, its Colosseum” – there have been as many as 5,596 car chases in one year (2004). Yet this should surprise no one: LA’s “ten million occupants are all ceaselessly trying to go very different places by very elaborate routes that gum up everyone else’s very elaborate routes. So the two people who stole a big rig filled with mixed melons last July and then led police on a four-hour meander around the 5, the 605, the 215, and the 15 freeways were, by local standards, behaving logically. And as for the trucker a few years back who fled deputies after a traffic collision, drove his eighteen-wheeler through the fence surrounding Long Beach Airport, overturned it on the main runway, set the cab on fire, and then ran away without any clothes on – well, fair enough, really.”
As a transportation technique, or genre of driving, the chase is an entirely sensible use of the LA highway system. In some ways that’s what it’s built for. “This is as much city planning,” Friend writes, “as it is producing – a vision of a metropolis knit together by speed and spectacle.”

[Image: David Maisel, from the Oblivion series].

What’s even more interesting is that the LAPD have begun to change their tactics of pursuit, including radio communication strategies, so as not to bring undue televisual attention upon the chases, the chasers, or the chased themselves – who often see these high-speed extravaganzas as a kind of initial public offering, or debut role, a break-out performance watched by captivated millions.
There is even a burgeoning visual style or cinematography associated with this tele-vehicular art form: “The frame of the pursuit – a cropped shot of an anonymous vehicle moving at ominous speed through a featureless landscape – has not been updated since the genre began.”

[Image: OJ Simpson’s infamous white Bronco; in a parallel universe, ruled by Philip K. Dick, this image would be used as the next American flag].

Meanwhile, whole subsidiary industries have arisen on the fringes of the car chase scene. Wired, for instance, writes about James Tatoian, who is “developing a system that uses microwave energy to interfere with microchips inside cars. Once the chip is overloaded with excessive current, the car ceases to function, and will gradually decelerate on its own.”
Then, in the slightly Orwellian field of “pursuit management” – a growth industry, I’m sure – StarChase LLC has developed a GPS dart system that consists of “a tracking projectile with a miniaturized GPS receiver, radio transmitter, power supply and a launcher which can be hand-held or mounted on a police car.” Shoot this thing at a fleeing car – and you can track it via satellite. (More here).
Yet another way to manage pursuits? As Tad Friend writes: “Within fifteen years or so, when all new cars will be equipped with OnStar-type security systems, the LAPD hopes to be able to override disobedient drivers using the quintessential weapon of the video age: a remote control.”
There’s even a “Pursuit Intervention Technique, or PIT,” which basically sets a fleeing car spinning – because a police car has just rammed into it.

[Image: A different kind of intervention technique].

In any case, what interests me here is not police pursuit technology in and of itself, but the fact that it has slowly become a regular feature of American urban life. Even more, the car chase, though illegal, irresponsible, and dangerous, is also one of the most logical responses to the American landscape: if you build “nine hundred miles of sinuous highway and twenty-one thousand miles of tangled surface streets” (Tad Friend) in one city alone, you’re going to find at least a few people who want to put it to use.
Add that to uncountable thousands of cameras installed there on lightposts, or carried by helicopters throughout the sky – the endless cinema of the everyday, an anthropologist’s dream – and anyone driving in LA right now is literally only moments away from celebrity. Go a little further, a little faster – and fifteen minutes after you read this post, I might be watching you on TV.
Be sure to wave.

[Note: Perhaps this is needless to say, but if you go whizzing off into la la land and drive your car through a house – it ain’t the fault of BLDGBLOG. Buckle up. And you can find more of this here].

6 thoughts on “Thousand Mile Colosseum”

  1. Semantics: perhaps I mis-spoke by saying that a car chase is illegal, etc., as car chases, involving police, are fully legal; it’s the high-speed fleeing by a criminal in a motor vehicle that is illegal. I might actually change how I phrased that – till then, I mean the high-speed fleeing is illegal.

  2. Slow speed fleeing is also illegal and quite popular. The police have begun to figure out what to do about it, but many chases end in a slow speed wind down after the tires are flat or something, where the pursued puts off the inevitable for a few minutes, sometimes longer, by fleeing at low speed. The police keep their distance because they don’t want things going out of control, and let the fleer decide when it is over. Simpsons hours long slow speed attempted flight was such an archetypal LA moment. The upside-down equivalent of a celebrity parade, one last heroic sprint for the hugely loved running back as he became the figure we know today. I dropped everything to grab a beer and watch it unfold from my couch, knowing full well I was participating in history by doing so. How many opportunities like that come along?

  3. Good point – though I instantly pictured someone moving so slow that the police can’t catch him…

    Which is funny, because a friend of mine just sent round a link to a show about security cameras and their “non-motion detectors” which spot abandoned objects in crowds. In other words, objects that don’t move are now considered security threats. Slow-speed fleeing, indeed.

    It’s like Zeno’s Paradox meets the LA freeway system: if you can grind to a halt for long enough – perhaps they’ll never catch you… No one will.

  4. An immobility detector would fail to spot a thing that exceded its resolution/sensitivity settings. So a parcel that jiggled might escape detection. Likewise, fugitives might elude capture so long as they were able to shift position slightly. Subatomic particles jiggle this way, and they are notoriously hard to catch!

    pace: cut to the scene of a nano-cop tailing an errant radionucleide at low-speed. The thing judders and slips, does some Brownian motion, changes state, and is suddenly on the other side of the planet. Or is it? Now it’s back where we last saw it, there, but not there. Some superannuated college kid pulls out a fluorescent tube attached to the timing circuit of a 1973 Chevy Nova and revs the engine, delivering an electromagnetic blast that disorients the cop and gives the fugitive a cloud of wave fragments to slip away in.

    Okay, so it probably doesn’t work like that in real life, but one could have a lot of fun playing around the edges of im/mobility.

  5. I know you’ve brought this up before, but this post made me think of nothing more than the Panopticon. When I first read of the Panopticon, something about it’s architecture made me think of the Globe Theatre, and, having also recently read about the London (and NY?) subway players performing for security cameras, this brings up some interesting possibilities.

    Imagine a tightly choreographed vehicular performance piece. Hundreds of hours of traffic flow analysis and careful route planning distilled into one impossible dance: hundreds of brightly painted cars, esoteric symbols painted on their tops, zigzag through LA traffic, each inscribing one line in what, viewed holistically, would depict a complex, concentric Kabbalistic Otz Chiim, all cars and routes converging in a Malkuth of fiery destruction. Helicopter pilots and surveillance camera operators secretly copy and trade tapes, cell phone cameras and home videos that might have captured a missing second of the dance are bought, stolen and traded furiously, until someone finally edits together the full performance. We view it as such and the spell is complete: Los Angeles is saved from oblivion by the watchfulness of its skies.

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