Sunday, 26 May 2013

Artists as Tourists

I write this entry in an inbetween state: I am home and have unpacked my bags from last weekend's symposium at NIDA and am getting ready to pack for the next journey. I will indeed most probably meet some of the same faces next week: when we went our separate ways there were many of us who said Venice Biennale would be the next stop on the merry go round. Can we then talk about artists as tourists, and if so where can this lead us?

At the symposium "Critical tourism, site-specificity and post-romantic condition" there was a low-level but pervading negative tone about tourists. They were often equated with the most superficial form of travel, a form of thrill seeking that has little use for serious art. Art seemed to be considered a more fitting place for considering relationships to site, for constructing a critical discourse that went beyond beaches, bars and barbecues. There were exceptions such as Error Collective who were designing immersive art installations cum artist lifestyle breaks and there were also those who, perhaps wisely, steered away from the subject of tourists all together. 

I have the feeling that this malaise over travel and tourism is something of a luxury problem. The majority of people taking holidays do not have the opportunity to travel internationally so often and for them they might not experience the mechanics of travel in so negative a way. I also have the feeling that the hunger for authenticity is not a constant. An artist or researcher might well make the elaboration of meaning an objective of theirs when in a place. I believe, however, meaning comes in many forms and is something of a speciality taste of its own. We as artists might do a residency and succeed in understanding the light in a place or appreciate layers of history or language or whatever is the focus of our work but that does not necessarily stop us from acting like tourists in many other regards. Regular tourists are also liable to have 'real' experiences by which I mean ones which have not been designed for the exclusive benefit of visitors. They may choose to avoid these or embrace them, enjoy them or be wary of them, but they will surely happen in any environment except perhaps a totalising tourist location like a Disney theme park, though even here reality has a nasty habit of reasserting itself.   

For me then, I think that it is good to view artists as being more similar than different to tourists and to use this as a starting point for offering something that constructively and artistically engages with tourism. I understand that this position brings with it some very particular artistic challenges and these will not suit every form of work or even every project of mine. What does excite me however is the realisation that tourists are in a rather special inbetween state of their own. They are often actively seeking distraction and an out of the ordinary experience. The tourist can be encouraged to find this in a bewildering range of possibilities; we heard about Thanotourism, tourists attracted to death and disaster, to graves and battlefields; we also heard of communist nostalgia tourism and slum tourism. The tourist really is malleable. Why not then view the artist as the 'expert tourist', as someone who can construct situations and experiences that connect people from different places? This is not quite the same idea as cultural tourism, though I suspect they crossover in certain regards, but is instead an artistic response to the condition of tourism. Something that might be a goal worth pursuing is to not only see artists as tourists but to also see tourists as artists. This is somewhat ambitious and may work more as an idea than a reality but if it is an idea that leads us somewhere interesting, if it provokes another form of travel, it is one I am willing to ride with.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

B Tour (open call)

There is a new festival in Berlin devoted to alternative tours with an Open Call, details below. I will be speaking on a panel this time round. 

Open call for the first B_Tour Festival

30/08/2013 - 1/09/2013B_Tour invites groups and individuals, to create tours that rethink storytelling, and suggest innovative, experimental approaches to the conventional format of a guided tour. Tours should encompass engaging ways of intervening public spaces and relate strongly to Berlin’s social/cultural/geographical fabric. The festival is particularly oriented to projects that challenge us to rethink our everyday relationship to the urban environment. The festival is a multidisciplinary arts platform where various artistic expression/disciplines meet social activism. We look for audio tours, video tours, tours without a guide, tours led by animals! Anything goes. 

Monday, 20 May 2013

The Critical Tourist's Tour: an artist led tour on the Curonian Spit

This weekend I was at Nida Artist's Colony in Lithuania for the symposium Critical Tourism, Site-specificity and Post-romantic Condition. I'll get onto the presentations separately and focus on the tour I took first. This was offered as a part of the symposium which combined artist's presentations, conference papers, talks, events, performances and meals all themed around Critical Tourism. It was a great chance to meet other people from many places busy with related ideas and projects to mine.  

The tour began on the sand dunes of the Curonian Spit (awkward name I know!), the natural feature that this area is famous for. Although it began in bright sunshine the weather changed quickly and a heavy shower drenched the tour group while we were listening to our guides talking about The Maldives. After 5 minutes of shivering I bolted and took shelter under a tree, loosing contact with the group.

I then took my own tour through the forest which we had been told earlier had been planted to prevent the sand dunes from engulfing the settlements as had happened previously, back in the 18th Century. After having a good look around and drying off it was time to find the group and see how the tour was progressing. This offered the fun task of tracking. Through the sand this was not too difficult as a group of 15 leaves quite a footprint. They did however also pass over grass so some guesswork was also needed. Since the theme of the tour was the swallowing of The Maldives into the Ocean I figured they'd pass down to the water and I was right: their trail reappeared, I caught up with them and picked up the story.

I think  this interruption actually added to the experience rather than interfered with it as it offered time to actively engage with the landscape alone scanning the sand like a hound hot on the trail. This is a point that resonates with the work I was doing in Zagreb recently where we were talking a lot about the amount of space we should leave people in order for them to engage with the surroundings. If you hold their hand and guide them too tightly then they are likely to experience the location less and your guiding more.

We came to a swamp. The weather was wonderfully hot, somewhere in the high 20s, and this was a very special landscape with pools of standing water on either side of us. It had a threatening beauty uniquely its own: claustrophobic, sticky, uncertain and teaming with life, we entered what was probably the most heavily mosquito infested area I have ever had the pleasure to pass through.   

This is how we began our careful trudge through the swamp. Already arms are beginning to flick away our tormentors. After another minute of this it became clear that we were being welcomed en mass as our little friend's dinner feast. Buttons were done up to cover us as best we could and arms flapped ever more vigorously as were being eaten alive. The careful walking pace speeded up to a steady march and by the end finished with a jog, a rapid escape was in order. As someone who seems to be particularly tasty to biting insects I think I got more than my fair share of bites my legs a red on white Dalmatian Coastine.

We finally emerged from the swamp and the tour concluded with a final reading in which we learnt about the problems facing some artists from the Maldives and underwater cabinet meeting staged by the island's president to draw attention to the impending disappearance of the country.

With the tour now over we went to the beach that stretched out beside us and made our way to the nearby Russian border. It is here that the critical tourists stripped down to their swimming costumes and one after another ran into the still chilly waters of the Baltic to exclaim how great it was and then promptly run back out shivering and squealing like children. "Tourists? Us? Never!" the critical tourists say. "We are artists and that makes it different"...   

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Tour groups in Zagreb

A 10-minute stroll around the centre of Zagreb this morning brought me no less than 4 tour groups!

The first group I found standing around in Dolac, the marketplace, was a German speaking party of pensioners. The man with sunglasses and the white beard is the guide.

That was followed by a group led by a young Croatian man speaking in English. The guide was speaking into a radio microphone and the orange devices that some of the group wear around around their necks are the speakers that can be held to the ear. 

Round the corner was a Chinese group who were not being led by anyone offering a tour but were instead making their way around the city centre. Notice the face mask the woman is wearing. This is not a comment on Croatia, you sometimes see people wearing these when they are back home in China too. I remember when I was there during the swine flu scare in 2009 these were very much worn. 

And finally I found another German speaking group. Again the people taking the tour were fairly old and they were to be found in the historical area around the city centre. I had at first thought that there was not so much obvious international tourism to be seen but I was out at the wrong time of day. 10AM on a Sunday and they were out in force. I should make a point of noting these patterns and learn how to recognise different types of group and guide from a distance. Maybe it could be a bit perverse to become a tourist spotter... That is a danger I'll just have to live with. 

Saturday, 11 May 2013

How to Commission a Tour / How to Be a Tourist.

I've had some enquiries about how a tour is made and what it consists of so, having already made a pitch for a tour in Cambridge, it was easy enough to produce a brochure that covers the essential details. It's now online: 

I'm writing this in Zagreb and looking at the city through a dual lens. On the one side I am very much engaged in the performance workshop I am assisting, which deals with, among other things, urban and communal space, connecting the many layers of personal, political, contemporary and historical views of the city. On the other side, I am also looking at it with the memory of The Tour of All Tours fresh in my mind and from the point of view of a visitor to the city. It is really valuable to not forget what it is like to be a visitor and to be excited by things that inhabitants of the city take for granted.

Although this is far from my first time in the city I am struck afresh by the different colour palette that I see around me. Buildings are painted such colours as cream and brown. 

And the staircase inside the building is also painted in unfamiliar colours. While they may not be spectacular in themselves they make me aware of the relative absence of these colours in my own environment in the UK. There are cities which are a riot of colours and this is not one yet it does frequently have these creams, browns, ochre shades and greens in various states of freshness. Many buildings were once pained in this manner but have acquired layers of dirt, graffiti and neglect which produce a quite specific result too.  

The final thing that has surprised me afresh and endeared me to the city is the prevalence of brown paper bags. They remind me of when I was growing up; they were much more used in the UK in the 70s and 80s and are relatively rare now. Here is one that contained a lisnato mak, a roll you find in the bakeries that contains a sweet poppy seed filling. You can see some of the crumbs on my trousers. What's more, it is no problem to bring your snack into the cafe, order coffee and eat it in peace. That has been a regular breakfast fixture in fact. And that is another thing that is no longer generally possible in the UK where signs usually advise you "Customers may not consume food that has not been purchased on the premises."

These are the sorts of observations a tourist might make and which should be allowed to find their way into The Tour of All Tours, which is another way of saying, I should not be too professional a tourist as to be above such matters.

Monday, 6 May 2013

The Cambridge Tour

I made a brief visit to Cambridge for Sampled Festival at The Junction. The concept of this year's festival was to show the artistic process by presenting work in all stages of development, including featuring a number of artistic pitches. It was in this way that I came to tell people about how I saw a Tour of All Tours in Cambridge taking shape. 

I gave it as a small tour in its own right, sharing my ideas in three locations around and outside of the building. It was a type of performance in its own right: a marketing sort of performance. 

It went fine as I knew what I was talking about the ideas still being fresh from Stuttgart. What's more, Cambridge is quite a touristic sort of place so I think people could relate to the concept quite easily. Whether it happens there or not is now quite outside of my capacity but if not there then somewhere else soon enough. It is ironic that, just as tourism tends to exploit a winning formulae and reproduce it worldwide, I can see how The Tour of All Tours can also be made and remade in different locations. It will have to work with different conditions and be adaptable much in the way tourism does.

There was time in Cambridge to briefly catch a rather unique attraction. A busker inside a rubbish bin playing Bob Dylan. I can safely say this was a first for me. He chose the right spot, in front of King's College Chapel which is the city's No. 1 tourist pull.