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"...   

No comments:

Post a Comment