Heathrow Alain de Botton

In 2009, pop culture philosopher and author Alain de Botton participated in Heathrow Airport’s writer-in-residence program and published a diary about his experience called A Week at the Airport. Image via Creativity Online

APEX Insight: For many of us, the airport might not be the first place that comes to mind when contemplating the perfect creative workspace, but airports are opening their doors to artists, writers and musicians, inviting them to enhance, and get inspired by, the passenger experience.

Some airports, such as Brisbane Airport and San Diego International Airport, host artist residencies on a continual basis, prompting many travelers to wonder if airport residencies are the “next big thing.” So far, participants have included the likes of Australian painter Robert Brownhall, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and the Fern Street Circus. While some artists seek to enhance the passenger experience by providing “pop-up” performances, others are inspired by it.

In 2009, Heathrow Airport gained attention for hosting two writers-in-residence, each for a week-long stay. Pop culture philosopher and author Alain de Botton published a behind-the-scenes diary recording his time in Terminal 5 called A Week at the Airport. The program’s second and final participant, Tony Parsons, wrote a collection of short fiction entitled Departures: Seven Stories from Heathrow. Five thousand copies were handed out to travelers at Heathrow free of charge.

Other airports are hosting artists and performers without following the traditional residency model. As the winner of the 2011 Live@YVR contest, Jaeger Mah spent 80 days living and shooting short videos in Vancouver International Airport. He was dubbed YVR’s “resident storyteller” and was given carte blanche to interview anyone he wanted.

“Before I stepped into the airport world I was actually afraid of airports,” says Mah. However, YVR gave Mah such a warm welcome, setting up a “living room” for him near the airport’s iconic Haida Gwaii statues, that he quickly lost his fear of airports. He produced daily videos on a variety of topics, such as: where luggage goes after you check it and the most expensive brands of liquor available in the duty-free store.

“Before I stepped into the airport world I was actually afraid of airports.” – Jaeger Mah, YVR’s “resident storyteller”

While artist-in-airport programs have emerged over the past decade, creatives have been motivated by the passenger experience for years. After traveling through Cologne Bonn Airport in 1977, Brian Eno, former synthesizer player for Roxy Music, was inspired to compose one of the foremost ambient music albums of all time, Music for Airports, as an antidote to the often stressful and tense atmosphere of the airport terminal. Though art residencies generate publicity for airports, they also present a challenge to think about airports as places to look for inspiration, rather than just tense spots to pass the time.