questioning institutional representations in tourism and cartography
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questioning the institutional view in the imagery of tourism and surveillance
With the advent of commercial aviation in the 1930s, global tourism became a possibility for the masses. Today, low-cost airlines and a competitive marketplace mean that tourism is a widespread and lucrative phenomenon. Any market with such enormous and global impact is going to capture the heart of the institution: governments will create tourism boards, national museums will assume authority over cultural representations of a place, and commercial interests will take over all the ad space available to make a place seem as glossy, sexy, and vacation-worthy as possible. What happens when the institution has the majority of control (and more importantly, the marketing dollars) to create the representations of a place? We're left with one, and only one, version of things.
Think about a tourist destination you've never been to. Paris? Bermuda? The Paris of the hotel brochures and tourism board is a City of Lights, and of baguettes, berets, and belles jeunes filles. It is not, of course, a city of race riots or political hostility, or unchecked suburban sprawl or outrageous downtown traffic, even though it's those things, too, when you actually get there. And Bermuda, painted as an untouched paradise of white beaches and sexy sunsets, doesn't show up in brochures as the middle-class campground that it also can be. The point is this: tourism boards and brochures-the institutional representations-only tell one side of a story that has innumerable sides. For most people and with respect to most places, this brochure version is all there is. Many of us will not get the chance to travel and experience, first-hand, the subtle realities of our planet's cities and towns. Instead, we must imagine, based on the reports and images we have, what these places are like and what we can learn from them. Standing in for actual experience is the representation of experience by various media-and when our only representations are institutional ones, our understanding will be incomplete.
This is a world in which experience is increasingly mediated by technology and representation. Consider, for example, the 2004 funeral of Pope John Paul II. Here, instead of focusing on the event itself, the crowd became a sea of uplifted mobile phones, snapping images of the event and then rapidly transmitting them to loved ones. We have become the journalists and photographers of our own world, experiencing things through the lens of a camera instead of through our own eyes. When arriving at a place or experiencing an event, it is more important to capture it and forget about it than to experience it and analyze it. We have come to trust media as though it is the real thing: a photograph is as good as a view, and a snapshot of the pope viewed on the screen of a cell phone is as good as seeing the man in the flesh. The image, or the spectacle, is the same thing as reality-why shouldn't we believe the picture on the hotel brochure, the vista on the postcard, the map in the government archives, or the story in the history textbook?
Because the spectacle is an illusion, and images can distort. The artists featured in this project are working to remind us of these facts, which seem so simple but which are so easily obscured. Just as the artists discussed in Subversive Cartography: challenging the accuracy of the official map subvert the institutional use of maps by creating new maps and experimenting with ways of appropriating and critiquing cartography, the artists here use the very forms and techniques of tourism to critique those forms and that tourism. This technique is sometimes known as detournement.
Jin-me Yoon uses the stereotypical tourist photo to examine the truths and lies behind tourist representations of place. Mitch Robertson uses the postcard form to reveal the ultimate banality of the sanctioned representation of place. Roger Minick uses the inane and ubiquitous souvenir to show how misleading souvenir culture is. Louise Noguchi uses cultural stereotypes-like the "wild west cowboy"-to reveal their own absurdity. Shelly Niro combines stereotypes and souvenirs to question both. N.E. Thing Co. appropriates the form of the guided tour to demonstrate the myopia of the institutional gaze.
The imagery and techniques of tourism provide perfect material for critiquing the phenomenon of the spectacle. The industry provides a vast arsenal of institutional imagery-the very face of the spectacle-that can be examined, tested, and criticized. Yet as pages fill on photo sharing websites of the same events taken with different mobile phones, another data bank of images is quietly growing. While we travel and take advantage of cheap and readily accessible digital imaging technology, the state takes advantage of increasingly sophisticated surveillance technology to watch us as we move. Each image of place that is collected, by citizen or the state, documents a loop of watching and being watched that has become the hallmark of modern existence. Surveillance technology gives the institution a spying eye whose gaze we are expected to believe and trust, yet surveillance ultimately provides another way of examining this phenomenon of how images distort and misrepresent. We know we can't really trust postcards, Polaroids, or government maps, and so why should we trust what shows up on a surveillance tape? The artists in this project, David Rokeby, Michelle Teran, Janet Cardiff, and the Surveillance Camera Players, all use surveillance technology to reveal the malleable nature of the imagery behind the spectacle of surveillance.
The tourist attraction functions as an oasis from concerns of everyday life, by presenting exoticised histories, potential for repose, or both. To simplify their appeal, these sites are limited to one official reading or reason for being, and are represented in official literature and guidebooks as singular, beautiful treasures-a reading that betrays a deeper reading or alternative recounting of their histories. As Lucy Lippard comments in her book, On The Beaten Track, "The underlying contradiction of tourism is the need to see beneath the surface when only a surface is available." The tourist is hard pressed to break through this surface, when perhaps even the locals understand little of the attractions in their midst. Penetrating the surface of meaning is difficult for tourist and local alike when the only easily accessible histories are the sanitized versions presented by "official" sources, such as government tourist boards. For example, the Travel Canada website uses a few short sentences to gloss over the relations between soldiers and aboriginal peoples at the Fort St. Joseph site in Ontario, but see it necessary to go into great detail listing the types of wildlife that inhabit the site, and remind visitors "don't forget your camera."
These attractions are endlessly photographed, from every conceivable angle. This recording and re-recording of the site still grapples only with the surface, and fails to construct either fanciful or deeper meanings of the place. Through overexposure, details of a place are erased and become a blank surface for us to project our own needs and desires onto. As Guy Debord notes in The Society of the Spectacle, "Tourism, human circulation considered as consumption, a by-product of the circulation of commodities, is fundamentally nothing more than the leisure of going to see what has become banal." This process of becoming banal is a result of constant overexposure and the simplistic presentation of sites that is perpetuated by popular tourist literature and the gatekeepers of the sites themselves. It remains the task of exceptionally patient travelers, historians, or artists to expose or create histories that make the sites more than they appear.
The artists discussed herein have succeeded in challenging and exposing the hegemony of the "official" reading of these popular sites, and indulging in their own myth-making. Paralleling the familiar use of the postcard, one of the most common sources of popular tourist imagery, Mail Artists (in the 1960s and later) extensively explored the postcard as an art format. The postcard format, which provides space for images and text, is cheap and easy to distribute, and can remain anonymous if desired: this links well with the goals of the Fluxus movement, some members of which explored certain elements even deeper-for example, by creating their own stamps. Mail Art elevated a banal medium of communication to something more significant and creative, and specifically attacked the postcard format for presenting a glossed-over view of a space and using a hackneyed message. Mail Artists not only offered alternatives to the one-sided view of the typical postcard, they also critiqued the form itself.
Similarly, Canadian artist Jin-me Yoon's Souvenirs of the Self photo series captures typical vacation imagery, but also has the images function as a self-portrait of the artist. Appropriating the postcard form to question the stories being told in them, Yoon plays with the form of the postcard; she mirrors the conventions of the postcard format, down to the typical imagery, to highlight her own presence in the photo, and in recognizing her, we are given pause to recognize ourselves and the poses we take when visiting "attractions." Both question the "spectacle" of the postcard and examine the one-sidedness of the view they offer. Similarly, in her Touring Home from Away series, Yoon explores the cultural myths of Prince Edward Island where tourism is a primary industry.
Canadian artist Mitch Robertson zeroes in more closely on the site itself, exposing the banality of these tourist spaces by recreating postcard images to reveal how common the views that postcards represent can be, and also to play with the myths inherent in some spaces. In Original Copy, through images that "copy" the typical postcard view of the attraction, Robertson lays out for the viewer the over-simplicity of the representation of these sites. The one-sidedness of the official, postcard-worthy view becomes obvious when confronted with these "copies" that reveal the same impenetrable façade - this time un-airbrushed and complete with incidental flaws (litter, "ugly" people in the background, clouds). In Loch Ness Landscapes, Robertson uses webcam imagery of the popular Loch Ness area in Scotland as a basis for the work. Here Robertson is employing the reverse of the technique used with Original Copy; instead of attempting to remain as faithful as possible to the original image, Robertson endows banal imagery with an imposed sense of uniqueness. By making these romantic modifications to the quotidian imagery of Loch Ness, Robertson is slyly mocking the tourist's delusion that his or her experience of the place is, in fact, unique. This project highlights, once again, how idealistic views of tourist locations more closely resemble what we actually want to see (and what the vested interests in those locations would like us to see) than what may actually be there.
American photographer Roger Minick also strives to expose the banality of "official" representations of tourist sites, but in his images of such sites in the United States he also depicts the casual connection with place that becomes possible when spectacle becomes wallpaper. His images depict interactions of locals with sites that are clearly geared to tourists, and reveal the subtle ironies contained within. Minick's photographs depict the oddity that is the spectacular and strange becoming commonplace. Like Yoon, Minick critiques the tourist's need to say I Was Here, marking either the place with their presence or their presence with the place. Minick shows that having borne witness to an iconic place, it is easier to turn one's back on it and pose for a snapshot than to truly participate in the place. Skimming surfaces of surfaces, some tourists will only become actors insofar as their roles have been predetermined by a guidebook. Thus, Minick shows how one-sided, overly simplistic, and misleading an institutional or "official" version can be.
Louise Noguchi explores a notion of the iconic characters that inhabit the tourist's landscape. Noguchi's images depict the myth of the Wild West as it is perpetuated in theme parks throughout the United States. Her documentation of these modern curiosities investigates the tourist's need to find the myth intact-the tourist wants to see the Wild West he or she knows from Hollywood and other institutional portrayals, regardless of how the Wild West may have appeared in actuality. Noguchi investigates the idea of the cultural stereotype as a tourist attraction in itself, and plays directly to the notion that often, though tourists profess to seek the "real thing," they are evidently satisfied by imitations or images that already exist in their minds. Where there's a desert, tourists would like to see cowboys, and if cowboys don't exist anymore in that place, they'll create some. The fake cowboys are the conjured ghosts of the past that support our collective notions of what a place means. Noguchi's work poignantly reveals the fallacies that form when an institutional representation is all we have, and how these fallacies eventually stand in for reality.
Nikki S. Lee operates as a cultural chameleon, modifying her appearance to blend into subcultures, and then photographing herself integrating into these subcultures. She has perfected this integrating gesture: it is one of self-effacement through integration. In a sense, she operates like the "Wild West cowboys" that Louise Noguchi photographs, in that she imitates and projects onto herself the persona that viewers expect to see.
Taking the notion of cultural stereotype as it relates to place one step further, American/Canadian artist Shelly Niro's body of work, The Shirt, consists of photographs of a First Nations woman wearing a shirt that plays off the typical "?nd all I got was this lousy t-shirt" souvenir on offer in so many tourist boutiques. This plays eloquently with several ideas: that of reducing a place to its resident souvenir, that of turning aboriginal peoples into souvenirs themselves (every tourist wants their picture taken with a "real Indian"), and even that of the disease spread through infected textiles that were knowingly passed to aboriginal peoples by colonizers. By outlining a history of tragedies, and then terminating the series with a hackneyed phrase that appears on countless souvenir shirts, Niro presents the more sinister notion of the tourist as a conqueror with a flippant attitude and a skewed vision.
Certainly there are expectations placed upon the types of characters that we think should inhabit spaces, and there are also expectations placed upon the tourist's gaze itself. Images by Canadian art collective N.E. Thing Co. address the various ways of endowing place with meaning. By drawing attention to the stages of the gaze, N.E. Thing Co. successfully underscores the fact that though most observers of a site do not fully evolve into active participants, the act of gazing is performative in and of itself. They show that the gaze belongs to the tourist, originally, but that once the institutional version takes over, the gaze can be wrested away and manipulated, leaving no room for alternatives or nuance.
So it seems we can allow these sorts of spectacular trinkets-postcards, souvenirs, stereotypes, and so on-to stand in for real experience and tell our stories for us, even if the stories they tell are untrue or incomplete. Surveillance technology-and the way we look at the way it looks at us-presents another opportunity for stories to be told and to stand in for reality. When the view is of a dark corner instead of a beach or tourist attraction, or when the subject is furtive rather than imperialistic and proud, the stories told take on a different cast. Likewise, when the gaze belongs not to the tourist's camera but to the vigilant lens of a security camera, the story told has different consequences. Some of the artists discussed here ask: Where does the institution choose to look? Even more importantly, they ask: What does it expect (or even hope) to see there? If a security guard reviewing a surveillance tape is looking for proof of trouble, he might be more inclined to read a story into the images he sees, composing trouble where none is necessarily extant. If a police officer watching live feed from a security camera expects to see violence, she might tell herself a story as she watches and perceive violence where none is committed. Spaces under surveillance evoke the idea of the Panopticon-that prison space where one can never know for sure if one is being watched-and some contemporary artists, working with surveillance technology as their medium and critiquing the very phenomenon itself, question the stories told by this kind of imagery.
How do these surveillance-heavy spaces contribute to the "spectacle" that the institutional view creates? They are, like postcards or tourist-board brochures, dependent on the interpretation of the institution. While you or I may look at Paris and see dirt or sex, the institutional body would have us see only a City of Lights. Similarly, while you or I may look at a surveillance video and see nothing, or nothing of consequence, an institution may have us see crime in the planning stage or an opportunity for tightened security. The institutional view is offered, in this case as well, as the only view. A number of contemporary artists respond to this idea, and attempt to show that images captured through surveillance are just as susceptible as postcard images to conjecture, manipulation, and speculative assignment of meaning.
Surveillance systems in their own right, David Rokeby's Guardian Angel and Watched and Measured explore the definition of detail and algorithmic possibilities within surveillance techniques. Since the eye that is always watching is watching for something in particular, methods of selecting pertinent information out of a glut of imagery are directly relevant to ensuring the future success of surveillance as a useful technology. Though Rokeby's systems are essentially benign, capturing images for the purposes of an art installation, they effectively cause us to question the motives of others who watch and collect surveillance imagery. As well, they critique the integrity of the "evidence" presented by this kind of footage and the arbitrary elements innate to these techniques of surveillance.
Canadian artist Michelle Teran examines the notions of peer-surveillance and storytelling in greater depth with her series of performances in Life: A User's Manual. In these performances, Teran takes on a character, usually that of an iterant traveler or homeless person, and carries small monitors and a wireless video receiver with her. The oblique comment being made by these performances-and the way they compel the audience to make up stories-is that surveillance video is, like anything else, completely subject to personal interpretation. Its value as "evidence," as the singular version of facts, is thus undermined.
Canadian artist Janet Cardiff's Eyes of Laura project takes the idea of constructed narrative based on surveillance imagery one step further. In creating a website based on a fictional premise of a security guard at an art gallery monitoring surveillance footage, Cardiff is able to weave an elegant narrative about watching through the character of Laura. The short video clips presented on the website are not purely illustrative; they are also evocative, and Laura's commentary leaves enough room for viewers to speculate on their own about what might be going on in these images. Like the work of Rokeby and Teran, the images captured in Eyes of Laura cause us to question the images, ask ourselves how they may be interpreted, and ultimately ask in what ways our own ideas-or the ideas of the institution-can superimpose the stories we want to hear over the images we see. If surveillance footage is the property and right of the institution, then its interpretations-which we now know to be myriad-might be reduced to a singular story.
The work of the New York-based Surveillance Camera Players constructs narratives in which the surveillance camera itself is the medium. They step in front of the cameras themselves and perform truncated versions of famous plays, or short plays that they have authored. The artists use the system of surveillance as a mirror within which they can create their own scenes, and show the public a humourous way of transmitting messages to whoever is watching (since the time has arrived that merely existing in public space means being watched). The Surveillance Camera Players also demand that we consider that what occurs in front of cameras is always fiction. By using the instruments by which the institution wishes to watch "real life" and planting obvious fiction in front of them, the Surveillance Camera Players are playfully manipulating the system, and also highlighting its deficiencies. The system is only as good as the analyst that views the footage captured by it, and even with the best analyst at the controls, in the end all images are subject to speculation and interpretation. Surveillance imagery is most often a device of the state, and tends to be used as "evidence" for the state's one-sided interpretations; these artists show, once again, that there can be no such thing as a one-sided story, and that these images are just as vulnerable to the fallacies and faults of the spectacle as anything else.
The artists represented here take on the tools and tricks of the spectacle. They use the media that make up the spectacle-postcards, tourism imagery, souvenirs, and various forms of surveillance-to critique those very media themselves. At the same time, they offer alternatives to the one-sided view that the spectacle offers. The spectacle is, for the most part, built and sustained-and polished to a shine-by the institution. It is the national tourism board that tells you what a country looks like, it is the corporate headquarters that tells you what to enjoy and remember about a historic site, and it is the economy that tells you what artifacts are worth taking home with you. Off the tourist's map, it is still the institution that tells you which lengths of surveillance tape are worth looking at and in what way they can be interpreted. What the artists discussed here demonstrate is not just that the institutional view can be skewed or misleading, but also that the very fact that there is just one "official" view is in itself a misleading arrangement. Every place has a million stories-every city has countless snapshots waiting to be taken and countless views from which to be admired; every monument has countless virtues and explanations; every image caught or put on tape has countless narratives and truths and lies attached to it. When the "official" version presents us with its single-minded "truth," we must recognize that there's far more there than meets the eye.
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