Feb 25, 2015

On the Beaten Track | In search of missing pieces

The intent of this post is to expose the (Albanian) public at large (or whatever narrow readership this blog has) to the work of Lucy Lippard, On the Beaten Track: tourism, art and place. A gesture that is meant more as an introduction to and understanding of travel vs. tourism, tourism of and as art, the implication of both these acts on space as “inauthentic attitudes to place”- and my (own research) interest in this space vs. place as one of expulsion (to borrow from Saskia Sassen) rather than inclusive in its difference.

photo credit: _detroit, michigan

In order to begin comprehending the scope (and depth) of tourism industry in Albania, do we even know the entirety of developments going on in its name (to make the country visitor-ready)? Why are we not questioning and demanding public transparency when it comes to our public assets? Why are we more vocal and loud when it comes to destruction, but not construction? Why are we so timid in (wanting, and) requesting to be informed, when the rest of the world is already facing challenges of the same bureaucratic, industrial, political, and economical dealings with rapid anthropocentric consequences on natural resources, gentrification (social expulsion/land grabbing) and (planetary/public) health? 

The ‘architecturally modern’ models and renderings, advertised to us via marketing campaigns that promise visions of simpler, puritan (plastic) times and idyllic havens to escape to, have a surgical feel, a put-off quality and determined attitude (more of a regimen) that screams urban cleansing and renewal (which in itself can have some serious repercussions). We should remind ourselves that there is no real urban regeneration or development in these acts (or mindset). They have the aesthetics of what is called boutique and the ethics of social (economic) cleansing. This model of the future not only reinforces tourism as an “inauthentic attitude to place,” but it marks the site as a generic “non-place,” a space of uncertain citizenship

There are people who think this is a good move, looking to the West as inspiration and precedent for our development. Sure, we want to be included, be part of EU and so much more. But, is it the smart way of going at it? EU and the West are coming undone. The weaknesses and instabilities of their financial system, surveillance and control of a deep fractured social structure (with prejudice), foreign and biological (not forgetting nuclear) threats, just to name a few. Will we be able to withstand all this? We've come undone ourselves, spiraling (down + out of control) really, for quite some time now, a quarter century to be exact. We are in desperate need of something catalytic, not catastrophic. What is it? I don't know. Something just short of resurrection, maybe? Well, I might be a bit harsh in wording this specific need for a miracle, but I definitely insist on it not being constructed as a monumental, modern, puritan mise-en-scene act of the beautiful. The beautiful needs to be sustainable, contextualized, to infiltrate social complexities, to inform mentalities, thus become realized in the everyday acts of the mundane, and not as a perceived abstraction of an icon or image (unresoluted pixels) only for a chosen / selected few (locals or tourists). Don't let the beautiful be an inside joke of a (pseudo-bourgeois) club membership, but a shared engagement within public interest - as its most fundamental public asset. 
photo credit: _hamtramck, michigan

In tourism, development's been built on maximizing the potential (aka exploitation) of our public assets, our natural resources, which of course, is standard procedure. But, to me, first and foremost, our public assets are people. Us. Why are we not maximizing our potential first (through education and information) to increase the capacity of making the decision if and how to maximize the potential of our natural resources? It has become a very diplomatic battle (and when I say battle, I mean strategy in planning it as such, and tactical in its implementation) between thinking minds and natural resources - in deciding which is a more immediate investment (in terms of returning profit) and important in being seen (perceived) as beautiful (aka. useful as a commodity) 1) by the entities (i.e. visitors) we so much need the approval of (and be accepted by) or 2) by our own people, the valued identity (i.e. heritage) we've so much fought for, well pretty much since the beginning of times. Diplomatic because it has felt very docile. Docile because it has been overwhelmingly one sided. We are serving our (tangible) crown jewels on a platter. With a bow on top, for kicks. A catered party where the real crown jewels (our thinking minds, our people) are not invited to, but (yet again) linger outside, by the door and windows looking in. Their heaviness imprinted on the glass. An unbearable lightness of being, indeed.

photo credit: going west | the happy hermit via 

Don't get me wrong, I am all for travel and exploration - but as Lippard tells us, there is quite a difference (and displacement) between travel and tourism. And, I would like us to realize that, to understand the definitions given, so we can challenge their intended use (aka. all shades of transparency) when addressing the public. Tourism is not bad, but it has been vilified and used as a commodity tool to advance financial agendas to devastating consequences for the masses. 

Who doesn't want to escape the everyday slumming, even for a fleeting moment in a well packaged promise? We all do, right?! Who, then, dares say that reality and imagination are two different things? Reality has indeed become fiction. What I'm trying to understand and unpack is the kind of fiction it has become, other than what it already was. A well designed perception (algorithm) for those who can afford it. Not the expelled, the poor, the electors, but the opportunists, the preferred, the elected. 

I'll stop my thoughts here and let you read a few paragraphs from Lippard's, On the Beaten Track: tourism, art and place. As always the reading and emphasis is mine. I strongly recommend you read the book to draw your own conclusions. 
Introduction: On Rubbernecking

photo credit:
Most literature about tourism is written from the viewpoint of the visitor (the supposedly “fresh eye”), rather than that of the visited. Immigrants and the internally displaced are rarely asked how they see their surroundings. Yet every place is both local and foreign. The same place is the site of two very different experiences. Domestic tourism [...] rests precariously in the gap between the familiar and the strange, the close at hand and the far afield. It is a metaphor for multicenteredness, offering experimental approaches to change.

Some sources suggest that tourism will soon be the largest global source of employment; others say it already is. Add that to the subcategory of armchair tourism via print and electronic media, and we're on our way to becoming a society of visitors and voyeurs on one hand, and commodified actors or targets of strangers' fantasies on the other.

Critical tourism may sound like an oxymoron. We don't “tour” to exercise our brains. A vacation is literally an emptying out, a voiding of daily experience and responsibility. Vacations are supposed to be fun, but then some of us get off on critical thinking. It raises questions about other people's lifestyles and value systems and opens us up to reciprocity as we re-invent them for our own delectation.

John Urry suggests that the “tourist gaze” uses “difference to interrogate the normal,” whatever that is. This is of course what artists do as a matter of course.

Since teaching people how to see is the artist's business, it seems odd that tourism as activity (rather than as an image or a symbol) has piqued so few progressive artists' imaginations, despite its heady vortex of cross-culturalism, mixed signals, disjunctive codes, faked authenticity, deterritorialization, and other hot topics. While scholars in anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies have feasted at this classic pomo trough, artists with ambitions outside the current market system have only sporadically recognized the affinities, realizing that they could have some effect on these ways of seeing. 

If there is little art about tourism, there is still less art within tourism. Monuments, museums, parks, and tourism itself have hitherto been thought of more as frames than as forms. But they can easily be seen as covert art forms, effectively practiced, like advertising, by official and commercial “non-entities” rather than by celebrities more interested in art fame than in social power. The current art system, for all its “critical” trajectory, encourages this kind of real-world timidity. Just as tourists often deplore situations brought on by their own presence, so artists are complicitous in the way the world is seen.

Tourism (like art) has been touted as a form of transformation, even cannibalism - the consumption of other places, other cultures, or the digestion of their powers. [...] Complex cultures, wildly oversimplified for mass production/consumption, are celebrated with a certain relief and disappointment. (“They're really just like us!”)

Traveling can be a kind of performance piece. We can reinvent ourselves instead of our surroundings. We can surprise ourselves as well as of being surprised.

Travel is between a beginning and an end, a circular form in which the point of departure is as influential as the destination. Victor Turner and Nelson Graburn have pointed out that the structure of tourism resembles all ritual behavior - a beginning, a change, and a return to the normal. When we travel, we “cross over,” as in Turner's notion of liminality - the experience of being on the threshold, in the throes of passage. We cross not only from place to place but also from time to time, and sometimes we are changed in the process.

On a local level, tourism is both additive and subtractive. Although its parasitic role is often remarked, today it is widely perceived as a cure for regional economic woes. Tourism has become a kind of caulking that fits in the cracks of a supposedly unsinkable economy.

The bottom line of leisure travel, after all, is enjoyment, which for many means comfort. “Paradise is a place where all your needs are met effortlessly. Paradise is a place where you are not allowed to feel pain.” Some talented souls actually know how to rest and relax on a tourist vacation, as advertised. For most, “doing the sights” is hard work.

Class and gender are salient components of travel's contradictions. [...] Tourism is by expectation constricted, while travel is by implication freer, partaken of by the well-heeled or by the down-at-the heel (“drifter tourism”). 

A better distinction might be between passive and active tourism, with artists falling in the second category. Passive or active, loud or courteous, affluent or working-class, tourists' behavior stems from a wide range of motives. They may be asserting their right to dominate, or rebelling against being dominated, or passing on the unwelcome experience of being dominated, or simply struggling with ambivalence about new roles in unexpected social situations. [...] Such situations can bring out the best and the worst in people. Some identify with those serving them and are able to perceive tourism from both sides. Others switch roles with dexterity and become irrational dictators.

If you have pretensions to being a traveler rather than a mere tourist, it is intensely embarrassing to be perceived as a visitor at all. 

Tourists who perceive themselves as “sensitive,” capable of appreciating the finer points while traveling [...] are still separated from those of us who lack the resources to know all those right things.

For those educated into a sense of social superiority, kitsch can generate a delicious sense of betraying one's class and educational expectations. Believing that nothing is real, some have trouble recognizing the real when they see it. [...] Despite a prevailing political indifference and the tendency of tourists to see no evil, lived experience comes first and theory later, once we realize what we should be thinking.

The underlying contradiction of tourism is the need to see beneath the surface when only a surface is available. However, peeps behind the stage set, or the wizard's curtain, offer just another layer of artifice. Destinations are chalked up rather than savored. Some places are merely “famous for being famous,” and some of them don't even exist. [...] Few would argue that much tourism is anything but frankly superficial, what Armand Mattelart has called the “shop window effect,” in which visitors' consumption patterns are taken on by those visited.

The historical roles of pilgrimage and curiosity have been filled (though hardly fulfilled) by tourism and museums.

Having discovered how attractive this toe dipped in freedom is to most people, the tourist industry has also gotten into the off-the-beaten-track business, usually more expensive and fundamentally more snobbish in its appeal for places where “the rest of them” won't be. In fact, we expect it to be a place where the rest of “us” or “you” will be - and we know who “we” are. We are unpleasantly surprised when we find we were wrong, and find ourselves lumped with “them.” At this point we are involuntarily back on the beaten track.

It's useless and hypocritical, though not difficult, to be generally “against” tourism. [...] Progressive people in regions that are economically dependent onvisitors” (sounds like they are from outer space, and they often seem to be) are struggling to imagine a progressive tourism that doesn't exploit local people or places and doesn't create rifts between personal lives and economic goals, history and spectacle, genders, races, and classes. A few artists are wondering what role progressive visual artists might play in facilitating, even creating, a responsible, critical, perhaps even satirical tourist industry - or alter-industry.

Must tourism be [...] an “inauthentic attitude to place?” Must it be [...] “something insidious...the sucking of difference out of difference [...]?” Or will the consciously multicentered person-artist eventually be able to challenge her own pleasures and discomforts, to create a responsible tourist as well as a responsible inhabitant of unfamiliar places?


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