October 25, 2019

Command performance

In Installation Art, art historian Claire Bishop describes a work by Vito Acconci called Command Performance (1974):

A closed-circuit television camera was trained upon the spotlit chair, filming whoever sat in it; in front of the chair was a monitor playing a tape of Acconci inciting the visitor to step into the limelight and ‘perform’ for him/herself. The camera linked the participants’ image to a monitor positioned behind them at the entrance to the installation — and which they would have seen upon entering. Viewers became both passive observers and active participants in the piece, watching Acconci on video while bringing the work to completion by sitting in the chair and ‘performing’ for other visitors who enter the installation.

At the time he made the piece, Acconci says “there was an illusion that the instrumentality of a person was important and it could lead to revolution.” By compelling visitors to participate, art installations could trigger that instrumentality, activate a latent sense of agency. “You’re in this position where you’re pushed,” Acconci says. “You have been aimed at. Now that you’re aimed at, though, you can potentially do something.”

From today’s vantage point, it’s almost impossible for me to think that he was in earnest about that or that a work that surveilled you and put you on display for others was in any way liberating or empowering. Now that we are routinely aimed at by all manner of targeted media and under the camera’s eye whether we choose to be or not, the idea that this kind of “activation” could be revolutionary seems sort of ridiculous to me (from my admittedly privileged position from which I need no special reassurance of my social significance). Forcing people to perform, to participate, just seems like a way to drive measurable engagement and enhance advertising values. There are no shortage of platforms on which we can perform and maybe even secure an audience, but to the degree to which that performance is about demonstrating our personal agency, it is strictly counter-revolutionary. It’s giving more power to the sort of capitalism that targets us and circumscribes us in the first place.

Generally the last thing I want from art is for it to feel like it is about me or requires more work from me to be complete. I don’t want to do more work as a means of feeling “empowered.” I’ve already fallen into that trap. I have thousands of words on blogs and social media sites to prove it. There is nothing necessarily salutary or rewarding about being “active.” It is not automatically creative or “authentic.”

I’ve had similar feelings about traveling. Sometimes it’s nice to pretend that I’m “discovering” things, but usually I just want to be checked out from that pressure. I don’t want to be pushed to take pictures of things. I don’t want to rate my experience. I don’t want to be made to feel like I’m in Acconci’s chair being forced to perform “tourism” as a way of claiming expertise over it.

In a recent essay about tourism in Iceland, Kyle Chayka gets at some of this exhaustion by way of disputing the notion of “overtourism”: “The stigma of overtourism is contingent on the sense that a place without as many tourists is more real, more authentic, than it is with them,” he writes. It’s “a subjective concern based on a feeling: It’s the point at which your personal narrative of unique experience is broken, the point at which there are too many people — like yourself — who don’t belong in a place.” Overtourism seems like it refers to an overvisited place, but it’s more about an overextended self. It allows not belonging to feel like a privilege.

The idea of “overtourism” can be summed up in a line often attributed to Yogi Berra: “No one goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.” That sounds like a paradox until you realize that “overtouristed” places are just full of people who don’t count as “someone” — nonpersons ruining the prospects that should be reserved for elites, for the people who truly belong there, or for the inhabitants with some authentic relationship that precedes its corruption by travel media, by social media, and the mindless hordes that follow in their wake.

To complain about “overtourism” is to become a connoisseur of disappointment. You can secretly delight in how it proves you aren’t taken in like everyone else. Being disappointed doesn’t reflect experiences being insufficiently authentic; it’s instead a process for authenticating one’s own superiority. You’d be disappointed if you weren’t disappointed.

One way to understand tourism is as a cultural machinery for producing “experiences.” Whether we admit it or not, the pleasures of tourism stem from this, from how it protects us from meaninglessness. In the midst of a tourist experience, we are wholly contained within a structure in which everything has been given a design, has been in some way reworked and prepared for our arrival. It’s all already been mediated in some way and made consumable. It’s like installation art on an environmental scale.

Being able to consume time and space themselves in this way conveys a sense of mastery, of exemption. But that sense of exemption doesn’t extend to our participation within hierarchically organized consumerism itself. In consuming experiences, as with consuming anything, use value (the value intrinsic to the experience itself, if by some miracle it could be enjoyed in isolation from all other experiences) is not the sole or even primary consideration. Just as significant is the semiotic value — what the experience says about you, what value it holds for others, how it positions you relative to the world.

Awareness of these values unfold within a consumed experience as part of that experience; it colors whatever feelings we have about it and frames how we interpret everything that is a part of it. That can create a desire for experiences that are exempt from that awareness and are “pure.” Such experiences would not be status signifiers and could not mean anything to anyone else but ourselves. They would be “real” in the sense that they somehow elude the structural value that capitalism assigns to them. But that desire too has been commodified; it’s worked into how experiences are packaged as “authentic.”

Overtourism implies that there is some “right” or natural amount of tourism for a place, but instead it imposes criteria that would destabilize any potential equilibrium. The right amount of tourism is only known in retrospect, after a place has been “ruined.” Before that, no one supposedly knows that it has become a trendy tourist destination, and all the visitors are not tourists but travelers who have come not in search of some prepackaged experience but a genuine encounter with the spirit of a place and its people.

In practice, though, the rhetoric of “overtourism” is intrinsic to tourism and not somehow a rejection of it (the term was coined by a travel consultant) — it’s just like “antifashion,” which is not against the fashion industry but central to keeping fashion cycles moving. Overtourism suggests that, regardless of whatever alibi we use on ourselves or deploy to persuade people we have a more noble purpose in mind, we should consume places for their positionality on the hype-cycle curve and to score points in a zero-sum game of cultural-capital acquisition. All tourism is “overtourism,” not because the tourist industry corrupts “real” places but because no travel can carry you beyond the structuring dynamics of class.

The relation between tourism and authenticity has nothing to do with whether places are “real,” or an experience being “true” to itself, whatever that could mean. The authenticity at stake is always that of the tourists — do they feel more “real” than the other tourists they see? Are they having a more or less programmed experience of the locals or the attractions? Are they getting more spontaneous or respectful treatment from service workers? Are they seeing things in a way that is more or less spoiled by others having preceded them? Experiences can’t be inauthentic, but you can be.

Part of what tourism is for, however, is to provide a sense of escape from that burden of authenticity (i.e. the burden of having to continually rearticulate one’s class position) while still elaborately announcing it. So we are continually displacing the burden of authenticity onto goods, judging them as though that protects or pre-empts our own being judged in similar terms. But this just leads in a circle, because nothing can ground the authenticity of a place except one’s own relation to it.

The idea that other tourists spoil the authenticity of a place is part of what sociologists John Urry and Jonas Larsen call the tourist’s “romantic gaze,” which emphasizes “solitude, privacy and a personal, semi-spiritual relationship” with the places being visited. It co-exists with what they call the “collective gaze,” which delights in the presence of crowds, who give a place its energy and aura of desirability. A subspecies of the collective gaze is the “mediatized gaze,” when a place’s appearance in TV, movies, or now social media stands in for the crowd. In this article about how the Joker movie turned a staircase in the Bronx into an attraction, Wired calls this “meme tourism,” since the goal is to emulate a previous media representation of a place and iterate on it with your own version on social media.

Neither the romantic nor the collective gaze is intrinsically evoked by a particular place; rather the experience is conditioned by what kind of access to a site you can procure within the machinery the tourist and service industries have put in place around it. Much like Acconci’s installation allowed you to both sit in the chair and watch others sit in it, tourist destinations usually balance opportunities for both “romantic” and “collective” experiences, moments when you feel suffused with a sense of your own centered uniqueness and moments when you feel caught up in the emotional response of viewership and the crowd. Each helps structure the pleasure to be found in the other.

Either way, tourism is a matter of seeking the presence of other tourists, regardless of where you go. One’s modulating relation to other tourists, rather than a “deep” connection with a site itself, dictates the experience. Tourism, like fashion, is intrinsically social. You can’t unilaterally opt out of either of them, or participate in them on terms you wholly control. They are means for sorting people and allowing people to find fleeting pleasure in that. Agency within these systems is inherently mimetic; agency and creativity are conditioned the terms of circulation and the need for other people to complete the work.

You can’t reject the “overtourism” framework, then, by finding less touristy places. That is the overtourism framework. Instead, you might opt for what Maxine Feifer, in 1985, called “post-tourism.” According to Urry and Larsen’s summary of the idea, “the post-tourist knows they are a tourist and tourism is a series of games with multiple texts and no single, authentic tourist experience. The post-tourist thus knows that he or she will have to queue time and time again, that the glossy brochure is a piece of pop culture, that the apparently authentic local entertainment is as socially contrived as the ethnic bar, and that the supposedly quaint and traditional fishing village could not survive without the income from tourism.”

This is the reflexive approach that Chayka settles on:

In the face of overtourism, I want to make an argument for the inauthentic. Not just the spots flooded with tourists but the simulations and the fictions, the ways that the world of tourism supersedes reality and becomes its own space … maybe by reclaiming these experiences, or destigmatizing them, we can also begin regaining our agency over the rampant commodification of places and people. We can travel to see what exists instead of wishing for some mythical untouched state, the dream of a place prepared perfectly for visitors and yet empty of them. Instead of trying to “live like a local,” as Airbnb commands, we can just be tourists. When a destination is deemed dead might be the best time to go there, as the most accurate reflection of our impure world.

Surrender the pursuit of authenticity, which is just a proxy for the power to commodify other people, and instead enjoy tourism on its own commercial terms, for its power in structuring the world. Escape from tourism as the work of producing status by treating it as the leisurely spectacle of status production. Regain “agency” by not insisting on immediacy but by accepting complicity.

In the sociology-of-tourism literature, post-tourists tend to be implicitly treated as “postmodern” ironists who revel in “play” and are smirking with barely concealed contempt at those tourists silly enough to be in earnest and who aren’t in on the big joke the world has become. Why, these post-tourists think they don’t even need to go anywhere! Since they see everything as “discourse” and “framing effects” they think there is no difference between going places and viewing them on a screen. “Consequently, we can speak of the ‘end of tourism,’” Urry and Larsen write, citing Urry’s earlier work on postmodernism with Scott Lash, “‘since people are tourists most of the time, whether they are literally mobile or only experience simulated mobility through the incredible fluidity of multiple signs and electronic images.’”

It seems obviously true that we are consuming images continually, that the cameras and screens we carry with us import “framing effects” everywhere, and that this generalizes a kind of touristic attitude toward life. We’re equipped with devices that impel us to document our lives as a means of shaping and substantiating them, of grounding their “reality” in series of images. Self-documentation extends the status-seeking of tourism to all of life; every representable moment has stakes for our sense of social status. Every moment is a chance to assert a claim of “firstness” about something, to show off access or a particularly privileged point of view. “Touristy” is not an empirical description that can be applied to a place but an attitude we inhabit and that’s afforded by our technology. Social media platforms give us the tourist gaze on demand, ours and others, and all the social judgment that comes with that.

But this doesn’t merely or mainly induce a spirit of ironic play with tourism. It also fosters a sense of nostalgia for when tourism wasn’t a generalized condition but could function as a kind of quarantined space of commodified experience, a time when you denaturalized your habitus and ventured it as stakes in the pursuit of out-of-the-ordinary pleasures. Tourism once contained status-seeking, offered a reflexive view of it, allowing the status-seeking that inhered in everyday life to sink below the threshold.

Now more of everyday life must be offered as evidence of status. One’s reputation is always on the line. There is no escape from the compulsion to “participate,” to contribute, to produce, to repackage experiences. Even if we don’t volunteer touristic presentations of ourselves, they are extracted by surveillance, constructed by data analysis, rendered through various forms of targeting. This apparatus structures us as tourists whether we want to be or not. So we are left with nostalgia for the experience of going somewhere and being able to become no one (“mass tourism”) and the reality of being the center of a universe in which you can go nowhere (“mass personalization”). Where can we go to enjoy our own insignificance?