The Pleasant Head Trip of Liminal Spaces

There was nothing immediately noteworthy about the image of a deserted road and three brick arches. I encountered it a few months ago, during a late-evening doomscroll, and stopped because I felt certain that I had seen it before. The street scene was washed in a woozy blue light; a curved expanse of brick that might have been a bridge obscured what might have been a swath of sky. I couldn’t tell whether my déjà vu was induced by the trace of a real memory or the non-specificity of the subject (infrastructure, weirdly lit). I decided that the most notable thing about the picture was an intimation of absence. The longer I looked at it, the more convinced I became that there should have been someone in the middle distance, framed by an arch and the oblique angle of the roadway, though I couldn’t tell who.

Several users of the r/LiminalSpace subreddit identified the image as a still, minus Rick Astley, from the music video for his “Never Gonna Give You Up.” An enterprising commenter identified the address of the filming location as Freston Road, in the Notting Hill neighborhood of London. From the slipstream of Google search, I pieced together a history: Freston Road had been the center of a much publicized protest in the nineteen-seventies, when the Greater London Council threatened to demolish the neighborhood’s ramshackle squats; in response, a group of artists and activists established the Free Independent Republic of Frestonia on a wedge of land adjacent to the roadway. This happened a decade before Rick Astley swore that he’d never give us up, and about three decades more before I stopped on an image in r/LiminalSpace, haunted by Astley’s ghost.

Liminal spaces are in-between places that exist as means to an end, to be travelled through but not lingered in: stairwells, roads, corridors, hotels. In forcing a confrontation with these prosaic architectures of passage, liminal-space images imbue the familiar with an eerie surreality. They owe much of their appeal to their framing and lack of human presence, which obliterate context and invite the viewer to populate the image with her own memories of comparable scenes.

The coronavirus lockdowns seem to have sharpened our appetite for this sort of displacement; r/LiminalSpace had about five hundred subscribers in March of 2020, and more than fifty thousand by mid-August. Liminal-space images lend themselves to weird, twisty trips (I think of the sequence that led me from Rick Astley to Frestonia), and the subreddit is most interesting when the itineraries of aimless strangers overlap. My favorite post, titled “My Swimsuit’s still dripping water!,” is an image of an empty, brown-carpeted hallway, posted last July. In the comments, people mine their memories for sensory minutiae, mostly the sounds of ice machines and elevators and the smell of chlorine; the forum has decided that the hallway must belong to a hotel. The result is a piecemeal account of the experience—more universal than one might think—of going for a swim in a hotel pool, then wandering, shivering, through a maze of dun-colored corridors. “This portrays the EXACT vibe you get when you’re at a hotel looking for the shower/change room but it’s not conjoined with the pool room,” someone wrote. “So you’re just in your wet bathing suit dripping chlorinated water all over the place like a moron. It sounds oddly specific, and that’s because it is. Trust me, I’ve been there.”

Timothy Carson, the curator of the Liminality Project, attributes the appeal of a liminal-space image to our desire to examine the overlooked textures of everyday life. In doing so, he told me, we let ourselves become submerged in “the swim of liminal space.” Carson, who is sixty-six, lives in Columbia, Missouri, and teaches a seminar on liminality in literature at the Honors College at the University of Missouri. He is also the co-founder of the Guild for Engaged Liminality, and has written three books on the topic. (Liminality “is my ‘thing,’ to be sure!” he wrote in an e-mail.) According to Carson, the most uncanny liminal-space images are those that tap into a long-buried memory of a similar scene, or have sufficiently many recognizable features that our minds, attuned to some gestalt, fill in the blanks. “I think that’s why there’s a vibration,” Carson explained, in a pleasant Midwestern drawl. “I think it’s close enough to what we have inside us.”

The hundred and ninety-one thousand members of r/LiminalSpace have a predilection for parking garages, gas stations, dead malls, shuttered Kmarts, and paintings by Edward Hopper and David Hockney. Pictures of once bustling commercial spaces have acquired a new emotional valence in the past year, even though our preoccupation with them predates the pandemic—a 2015 Times story compared dead malls to “beached whales,” megalithic sources of “fascination as well as dismay.” In thrall to the impersonal blankness of a dead mall on r/LiminalSpace, I recently found myself recalling certain details of a nearby shopping center—an exhausted, sprawling structure that became a favorite haunt of urban explorers after its closure in 2013. Revisiting it in my mind was effortless, almost a release. There was a band of animatronic bears that used to hold court in the mall’s atrium every Christmas, and a blue-tiled fountain full of pennies. There was an Auntie Anne’s Pretzels kiosk, which you could smell a hundred yards before you saw it. These and countless other generalized affects came to me on the same spectral frequency as Rick Astley and hotel swims—as a hybrid between a memory and a projection, between something past and something possible.

You could make a habit of visiting these in-between spaces, to root out the source of their off-kilter energy, to jolt yourself free of a creative block, or to spin out ever more elaborate dreamscapes to drift through, like Miss Havisham taking stock of stopped time. Carson described to me a tiered system of liminal spaces enclosed within a multistory mansion, which he’d seen in his dreams. I asked Carson whether a person could become stuck in liminal space. Semi-permanent liminal states were a real possibility, he told me, and the pandemic could be thought of as a prolonged liminal phase. He noted that there aren’t good or bad liminalities, per se: once you get there, a liminal space is what you make of it. “Are we drowning in the pandemic, or are we swimming in the pandemic?” Carson asked. (Speaking for myself, treading water, mostly, I wanted to respond.) The important thing, I gathered, was that you didn’t overstay your welcome. You could spend minutes or months in liminal space, suspended in a kind of amniotic bliss or a state of fascinated horror; in the end, though, the point is to leave.

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