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.

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