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?


Feb 2, 2015

Ghosts in the city | In search of missing pieces

In continuing to make sense of what is and has been happening in Albania the past twenty some years, I'd like to take on the challenge of explaining it to anyone who's not familiar with these flawed ways of rehabilitating a country after half a century of totalitarian rule and complete isolation. Flawed (even cruel), because they have managed to debilitate it further.

However, I will not be doing it alone. I will use the words of Michel de Certeau. I am reading his book again, The Practice of Everyday Life: Living and Cooking Vol.2, and right under Intermezzo (‘in-between’ how fitting) is his wonderful essay Ghosts in the city. Important, because he so wonderfully captures the struggle between ‘spirits’ or ‘resistances’ of the past and much speculated [albeit contradicting] ‘restorations’ or better yet, ‘salvations’ in the near (or past) futures. 

A city as a product of compromise, no doubt. But, according to which criteria? What are the Crown Jewels of Albania (and the Albanian city)? What are its ghosts? How are we defining ‘National Heritage’? How's ‘National Heritage’ been used by the gov apparatus to restore/change/communicate (through gestures and narratives) with Urban Planning? Architecture? Culture? Arts? People? (All caught ‘in-between’.)

** This is a long read. I am using solely excerpts from de Certeau's essay. The reading emphasis is mine. I have selected them (sometimes out of the original context) as a tool to understand what's been happening in Albania, in order to question the intentions and methods (gestures and narratives) used. 
(Granted, de Certeau has written this book with Paris in mind and on paper, but the points he brings up cannot be ignored in today's Albania. Thus, my interest in posting it. I recommend you read the original essay to draw your own conclusions.)

Ghosts in the City

All photos are mine via diagstudio. (pardon the quality)

An Uncanniness of the “Already There”

The strategy that, yesterday, aimed at a development of new urban spaces has been little by little transformed into a rehabilitation of national heritage. After having considered the city in the future, does one begin to consider it in the past, like a space for journeys in itself, a deepening of its histories?

The watch-word: “I don't want to know about it.” The remnants had to be eliminated in order to be replaced. This urban planning destroyed. Yet, some old buildings survived, even if they were caught in its nets. [T]he debris of shipwrecked histories still today raise up the ruins of an unknown. They burst forth within the modernist, massive, homogeneous city like slips of the tongue from an unknown, perhaps unconscious, language. They surprise. [S]educe the nostalgia attached to a world on its way toward disappearing. Ancient things become remarkable. An uncanniness lurks there, in the everyday life of the city. It is a ghost that henceforth haunts urban planning

Naturally, this uncanniness did not come back all by itself. It was brought back by the protectionist economy that is always reinforced in periods of recession.

This ghost is exorcised under the name of “national heritage.” Its strangeness is converted into legitimacy. [T]his tradition articulates the protection of selected monuments that have a “national” interest over the necessary destruction of a bygone past. First placed under the sign of “treasures” to be extracted from a body doomed to die, this museumesque policy already takes on [...] the character of an aesthetics. Today it encounters the point of view of urban planners who notice the premature aging of modern buildings rapidly changed into obsolete and outmoded constructions. (read: Piramida, Paint the City project - or, any new construction for that matter) Must we then renew our buildings every twenty years? For economic as well as national and cultural reasons, one comes back to this past that has often aged less than that which is new. Therefore, renovation is preferred to innovation, rehabilitation to development, and protection to creation.

But something insinuates itself here that no longer obeys the “conservative” ideology of national heritage. This past is generally looked on as imaginary. A stranger is already there, in residence.

Quite far from aligning itself with the historian pedagogy, that still often organizes the museum into one of a small or a big “motherland”, the new renovation distances itself from educational or state-controlled perspectives that inspired the protection of a treasure “in the public interest.” It is less interested in monuments that in ordinary housing, less in the circumscriptions of national legitimacies than in the exogenous historicities of local communities, less in a privileged cultural period [...] than in the “collages” produced through the successive reuses of the same buildings. The new renovation still undertakes to “save” things, but now this involves complex debris that it is impossible to classify within a pedagogical linearity or to lodge within a referential ideology, and that is disseminated throughout the city like traces of other worlds.

A population of “Legendary” Objects

In the urban imaginary world, there are first of all things that spell it out. They impose themselves. They are there, closed in on themselves, silent forces. They have character. Or, even better, they are “characters” on the urban stage. Secret personas. [T]hese inanimate objects acquire a certain autonomy. They are actors, legendary heroes. They organize around them the city saga. They are witnesses to a history that, unlike that of museums or books, no longer has a language. Actually, they function as history, which consists in opening a certain depth within the present, but they no longer have the contents that tame the strangeness of the past with meaning

These wild objects, stemming from indecipherable pasts, are the “spirits” of the place. [T]hese objects play the roles of actors in the city, not because of what they do or say but because their strangeness is silent, as well as their existence, concealed from actuality. Their withdrawal makes people speak - it generates narratives - and it allows action; through its ambiguity, it “authorizes” spaces of operations

But where does one stop, how does one demarcate the population from these things that are “spirits”? Trees too are a part of them; they are the “sole, true monuments.” But also a fountain, the detail of a facade, the corn or ham hung from the ceiling of a small cafe, [...] the curved shape of a table leg, toys, family photos, the wayfaring fragments of a song... This population spreads out its ramifications, penetrating the entire network of our everyday life, descending into the labyrinths of housing, silently colonizing its depths. [T]his population traverses time, survives the wearing away of human existences, and articulates a space. [T]hey teem, transforming our streets into forests and our buildings into haunted houses; they extend beyond the dogmatic borders of a supposed “national heritage”; they possess places even though we believe to have shut them in, stuffed, stamped, and set them under glass in the hospitals for popular arts and traditions. Some of them undoubtedly died in these museumesque zoos.

The promoters of urban renovation are thus rightly suspicious. They should be even more suspicious when they open up the city and accord legitimacy to these unknown immigrants. From all these ancient things, they only admit what can be tenured as “national heritage.” According to which criteria? This remains unclear. [A]s with all things tenured, in return for conforming to the law of renovation, they become modernized. These stories corrupted by time, or wild ones from who knows where, are trained in the present. Certainly, the pedagogical processes of which they are the object include an internal contradiction; they must at once protect and civilize that which is old, make new that which is old. The products that come out of restoration are thus compromises. They are passageways on the multiple frontiers that separate periods, groups, and practices. They play an important role in the urban polyphony. Whatever the framework in which this “salvational” will is inscribed, it is true that restored buildings, mixed habitats belonging to several worlds, already deliver the city from its imprisonment in an imperialistic univocity.

A Policy of Authors: Inhabitants

Restoration [...] tends to transform these heterodoxies into a new cultural orthodoxy. Even distributed outside the patrimonial temples of memory and placed at the inhabitants' disposal, restored objects turn into museum pieces. Their dissemination works yet again at extending the museum outside of its walls, at museifying the city. It is not that the museum is a plague or that it can be transformed into a scarecrow or a scapegoat. The museum often exercises the role of laboratory, ahead of urban planning. But it functions in its own way. It conceals from users what it presents to observers. The question no longer involves renovated objects, but the beneficiaries of the renovation.

If one refuses to accept the logic of conservation, what other hypothesis will take over? When the museum pulls back, what wins? The law of the market. Such is the alternative presented to the interventions of the state: either uphold the institutions of preservation (more or less pedagogical), both public (museums) and private (associations and hobbies of all sorts), or enter into the production-consumption system (real-estate agencies, project developers, architectural firms). In the second hypothesis, the museumesque “subtraction” (building taken away from private housing in order to be transformed into public theatrical institutions) is replaced by an economic misappropriation (building taken from disadvantaged inhabitants in order to be improved and sold to better-off buyers). This urbanistic restoration is a social “restoration.”

A politics of renovation seeks to play between the “conservationists” and the “merchants.” Some rules aim at limiting or controlling one group by the other. Certain intermediary powers insinuate themselves into these power relationships. But the first “intermediaries” to be promoted should be the people who practice these places to be restored.

Through its own movement, the restoration economy tends to separate places from their practitioners. A misappropriation of subjects accompanies the renovation of objects. 

They obey this rule precisely as therapeutic institutions. Renovation participates in the medicalization of power. Passing from the individual body to the urban body, this therapeutic power does not change its methods. It treats organs and circulatory systems by not taking people into account. In this widened medical administration, the misappropriation of subjects remains the prerequisite for a restoration of the body. This is the hospital system.

[S]till very marginally, within the field of medical technocracy, the dynamic relations between inhabitants and specialists must be restored. It puts power relationships into play between citizens who are supposed to be equal before the law. A policy is involved here that goes beyond and controls any economic management.

Inasmuch as a policy takes its inspiration from the principle that “national heritage,” must “become the business of all [...] people,” a particular but fundamental form of it must be underscored, the right to creation, in other words, an autonomy in relation to the draconian regulations fixed by certain specialists. The inhabitants, especially the disadvantaged ones, [...] have a right to select their own aesthetics.

Among many other reasons, urban futurology itself requires these unrecognized artists to regain their authorship in the city. A democratization of artistic expression must correspond to this democratization of techniques. How can one expand the latter if one censors the former?
It wastes the true capital of a nation or a city because its national heritage is not made up of objects it has created but of creative capacities and of the inventive style that articulates, as in a spoken language, the subtle and multiple practice of a vast ensemble of things that are manipulated and personalized, reused and “poeticized.” In the end, national heritage is made up of all of these “ways of operating.”

The everyday artists of ways of speaking, dressing, and living are ghosts in officially recognized contemporary art. It is high time that an urban planning still seeking an aesthetics recognize the same value in them. The city is already their permanent and portable exposition. They turn the city into an immense memory where many poetics proliferate.

Mythical Texts of the City

Within the perspective of a democratization, a condition for a new urban aesthetics, two networks in particular hold our attention, gestures and narratives. They are both characterized as chains of operations done on and with the lexicon of things. In two distinct modes, one tactical and the other linguistic, gestures and narratives manipulate objects, displace them, and modify both their distributions and their use.

Gestures are the true archives of the city, if one understands by “archives” the past that is selected and reused according to present custom. They remake the urban landscape every day.

The wordless histories of walking, dress, housing, or cooking shape neighborhoods on behalf of absences; they trace out memories that no longer have a place - childhoods, genealogical traditions, timeless events. Such is the “work” of urban narratives as well. To the visible city they add those “invisible cities” about which Calvino wrote. [T]hey render the city “believable.”

These narratives also constitute powerful instruments whose political use can organize a totalitarianism. (They exploit.) [T]hey make people believe and do things. They require a democratic management of urban credibility. Political power has known for a long time already how to produce narratives for its own use. The media has done even better. Living is narrativizing. Stirring up or restoring this narrativizing is thus also among the tasks of any renovation.

Narratives are certainly not lacking in the city. Advertising, for example, multiplies the myths of our desires and our memories by recounting them with the vocabulary of objects of consumption. (including photo-ops as publicity stunts) But the city is a stage for a war of narratives. [T]he grand narratives from television or advertising stamp out or atomize the small narratives of streets or neighborhoods. Renovation should come to the aid of these latter. 

Renovation does not, ultimately, know what it is “bringing back” – or what it is destroying – when it restores the references and fragments of elusive memories. For those ghosts that haunt urban works, renovation can only provide a laying out of already marked stones, like words for it.