Travel writing as art in the digital world: The New Informal Destination Guide
RECENTLY surf photographer Chris Burkard and I discussed the role of “______ porn” – surf porn, travel porn, snowboard porn, etc. – on the internet, including, obviously, here at Matador.
We agreed that this kind of media – big photo collections and roundups of iconic and/or “superlative” places, or even just single (often context-less) images shared on via social – all have their place. They get people stoked. They inspire, create wanderlust, possibly cause people to reconsider plans, to check calendars and bank accounts.
But at the same time, in my opinion they can also lead to false dichotomies, to black and white thinking. To looking at places as “destinations” to be experienced or consumed, which ultimately ties into the choices we make as travelers: how do we visit a place? With what expectations? With what preconceptions? How much of our experiences are we basing off someone else’s ranking or descriptions or guide?
The paradox of travel media is that even as it inspires us to travel, it can effectively deaden our innate curiosity and logic for travel. We arrive somewhere and find it doesn’t match the description, the picture, similar to the way fast food never looks like it does on the menu. Travel writing (and certainly porn) works against us when it displaces our instinct for being students of place (similar to a good investigative reporter) wherever we go. When it suggests that the “real places” and real stories are somehow “out there” instead of everywhere we go, in everything we do.
A powerful illustration of this is The New Informal Destination Guide (TNIDG), a project from Berlin / NY based visual artist and photographer Jeff Luckey. Instead of focusing on typical “destinations,” attractions (what travel marketing people call “products”), or replicable itineraries, TNIDG is about marginalized spaces – a stretch of Atlanta highway locked in by interstate and airport runways, a now-abandoned Southern plantation and its decaying environs, a motel in Los Angeles across from a vacant lot and dilapidated billboards.
As opposed to so many first person travel blogs and stories, with narrators breathlessly recounting transformative, superlative experiences, TNIDG is narrated in a flat, often passive, and almost encyclopedic tone. But the irony is that through the places’ very marginality, the juxtapositions of changing times, economies, and cultures the local characters find themselves facing, there is a powerful sense of pathos created throughout. And here’s the thing: it makes you want to visit these places.
I asked Jeff Luckey a few questions to further understand TNIDG:
[DM] 1. While taking the form of a “guide,” the pieces in the New Informal Destination Guide have little resemblance to travel guides and destination pieces with their typically commercial-led motivations; instead they seem like snapshots of places nobody would even consider in the context of travel. What was / is your motivation in creating TNIDG?
Following that thought, photography as a form, to me, had started to run aground, specifically in its complicated relationship to cliché and muteness—of how to depict a scene, or resonate the atmosphere of a place. It is still a great medium for objective visual description, but can often start to fail when it attempts more complicated ideas and perspectives. Cinema, as an elaboration and expansion of photography—with its use of time and narrative—can challenge this issue much better and has recently become my artistic medium of choice.
In some ways though, thinking through images, I guess I simply had come to miss the idea of old fashioned storytelling; no pictures necessary. We live in such a hyper visual world that I thought a return to the intimacy of language was needed; Let the imagination and description formulate images in the viewers’ minds, and lead the reader to desire these unknown/unseen spaces. Kurt Vonnegut and John Steinbeck taught me as much, or more, about US history as did Walker Evans and Stephen Shore. I guess I just missed this spirit of language and somehow wanted to humbly try to pay homage to that memory.
Funny enough, I think this new writing practice has naturally helped drive the photographic and cinematic practice further forward, creating a nice “ebb and flow” relationship between the mediums. Looking at the first entry of TNIDG (“Chair Defense, NYC, NY“)—which was the inspiration and the wellspring of the project—or perhaps even better, one of the latest entries (“Package Procedures, Athens, Georgia“), it is most clear to see this function of storytelling. There is no way I could imagine to successfully photograph or film these situations. It would lose all of the magic of the atmosphere, of the description.
Secondarily I would like to note that the desire to work with, and hopefully challenge the platform of the internet was also a big motivation. In my view, the space of the web has become just as exciting public arena to explore as the traditional space of the visual arts, meaning mainly the art gallery and the museum. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) the web however also runs the risk of becoming a junk space, increasingly inundated with online shopping and marketing experiences, and the reverb of everyone’s overly personalized blog/re-blog infatuations and testimonials. The fact that one’s social life and photo album memories are now sponsored by major online corporations is a bit frightening and bizarre as well.
Opposite that of course, the web does function extremely well for political activation and awareness, as well as for things like independent publishing and new mapping technologies. It is a complex space that, to me, is a very exciting development for society and I thought it would be interesting to engage somehow with this new digital world.
2. It’s definitely interesting and in some sense gratifying how the Internet has democratized or liberated certain spaces—from art and photography to publishing—that have been traditionally been less accessible to the general public. At the same time, there’s a kind of bleakness in the way the Web seems to channel or package people’s innate curiosity about place. One of the most intriguing elements of TNIDG is how it, exactly as you say, “lead[s] the reader to desire these unknown/unseen spaces.”
But when you look at the way “travel,” “place,” and “culture” are typically depicted–everywhere from mainstream travel publishing to individuals’ social media presences—there’s this sense that everything has simply become a product. People write value-judgment filled “advertorials” about their family vacations or volunteer-abroad experiences without seeming cognizant they’re doing so. Is this strictly a linguistic question–the result of our being imprinted by decades of advertising and marketing? Or does it reflect something deeper about our actual relationship with place?
That’s a tough one… Off the cuff my first thought would be that these tendencies are certainly defined by advertising and marketing culture. I think most people’s buying habits and travel itineraries are pre-defined already by what they have been told is worth seeing. The internet should have shaken this up a bit and made choice and style (of description, depiction and portrayal) a more expanded field. It seems though that instead the internet has made it perhaps dangerously too open and too easy. Any person with the right computer and internet access can now design, present and promote their own experience, as amateur producers and critics of culture and the world.
This ability for dedicated citizens to have a voice in the crowd, which should have been liberating, has only led more in the direction of empty celebrity than to any sort of engaged criticality. It has become a cheap discount realization of Andy Warhol’s belief that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. And with the amount of online porn out there, there are many new celebrities!
Nowadays I think this new “advertorial” format aims to promote, and to compete, with as much validity as the New York Times or Lonely Planet. When this is done well, it can liberate and open the field. However, as with most failed cases, it normally just lowers standards and quality.
It is here that I think we have a cultural battling point. Online versus offline pits freedom and independence head-to-head against taste, value, choice and exclusion. This lack of standards is what makes most publishers, lovers of books and scholars cringe. With the freedom of the open platform internet, people get this great chance to declare something (anything), but in the end most people just market themselves and design their own brand identity.
The one thing that seems clear about the online world of low standards is that many participants put a type of blinders on. Maybe it is the speed and ease of the operation? Or how great things look on computer monitors? They forget how to observe the world and maybe even start to take everything for granted. In terms of speed and human ego, a company such as Apple has mined this situation so well. And everyone is buying! Every 2 years.
In relation it might help to look back at the industrial revolution and the rise of commercial farming—how it destroyed nutrition standards, and the small farmer as well. Today we see the traditional modes of information and knowledge, along with their specialists, on the verge of extinction. For me personally, it is easiest to see this in the gradual demise of the commercial photographer. And on the chopping block next perhaps are book publishers, investigative news reporters and (as a long shot) maybe even the classic historian.
Hopefully humanity will muddle its way through this mess and make something good out of it. How the coming generations (raised fully wired) will take this on will be an amazing venture. Sadly I will be too old to see this transpire in full. I do see myself as a sort of positivist and think that it will be an amazing ride. I look forward to seeing at least the next 30 to 40 years.
Regarding the second part of the question (how this all might run deeper than marketing and advertising), that is too tough for me to answer with any great wisdom. It is too difficult to personally imagine the world and human existence without the pull of the media and marketing. It seems funny to think about one thing in particular though—the parts of the world without internet access and without major media influence are the locations with the least amount of leisure time travelers.
Many millions, perhaps billions of people have no interest to either shop for leisure goods or voyage out into the world on their time off from work—much less state their online opinion on the matter. Poverty of course plays a major role in this, but there is more to it than that. I would look at less developed lands, for example, as a counterbalance. Often oppressed and traditionally skeptical of capitalism’s mechanisms (see Neo-Colonialism), as they get wired and connected, it will quickly shift their worldview on the matter.
In relation to this, it shows how advanced (in capitalist terms) these issues of an individual’s online identity, opinion and value judgment have become, and how market oriented the internet has also become, in its influence. In this regard it seems like most everyone working online is hard wired towards market survival tendencies. On one hand this can help a small business thrive in the wild, while on the other hand it makes for writing and reporting that can smell of celebrity, brand and product. This can all be seen as both a good and a bad thing. The ball is still in play.
3. So true. That relationship between a location’s internet access / media influence and its resultant “notability” resonates on many levels. A friend (Adam French) once wrote about a small village in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru: “It would only take a little bad press reaching the right ears or the wrong blog to redirect the visiting throngs to a different village, another mountain range, or even a distant continent for their next trek.”
I’ve had similar thoughts about places in Central America, fishing villages in El Salvador that were essentially off everyone’s map except surfers and locals – and always at the back of my mind were competing (and admittedly self-centered) thoughts of how these places might benefit from staying off the map.
Still, it often troubles me how even registering, contextualizing, or describing places this way—framing them within one’s own preconceived trajectory of change—may be a form or attitude of appropriation. Perhaps this is unavoidable, the effect of a worldview informed by massive change to one’s home ground (in both of our cases the metamorphosis of the areas north of Atlanta, Georgia from mostly farmland and forest to almost complete suburban sprawl in 25 years).
Either way, what strikes me the most about TNIDG is the narrator’s “treatment” of places. Whether it’s the one-mile stretch of Morningside Drive – patrolled by security in golf carts – or a package store in Athens Georgia, there’s a sense of neutrality – as if no single detail is any more important than any other detail – which comes off as a kind of detachment, almost disembodiment, in the narration. This doesn’t seem like a question strictly of POV, but something deeper, almost as if you intended to make each place itself the protagonist. Is this the case? What writers have you read and who / what has helped inform your prose style?
Yes, you are right about this sense of a detached narration. To me the writing style was a way for the locations and characters to remain up front, independent and primary, with my voice as the author coming in second. The writings should function as objective depictions of the small daily nuances of our present day globalized world. This is the space of fading industry, golf cart security firms, immigrant workers and service economy employees, transported sun umbrellas and third world exchange students.
I like this possibility as well, to design stories where the furniture and architectural settings become equal to their living human counterparts. Living now as part of the new technological existence I tried to also play (just a touch) on the idea of an artificial style narration, one possibly suited to today’s digital world. As the writings move forward, this is the main avenue (the digital world and its alteration of human interaction, society and landscape) I hope to explore in more depth.
As for influences, I took inspiration from a trusted group of objective fiction writers, all of whom are interested in the human relationship to architecture and space: Alain Robbe-Grillet, Peter Handke and Italo Calvino. How I updated these writers’ methods to engage with present day reality I have to credit the speculative fiction visionaries J.G. Ballard and William Gibson.
Nonfiction critical cultural writers whose observational texts on society greatly inspired me as well include Richard Sennett and Roland Barthes. Michael Taussig’s current strategy of fictocriticism as a way to break open the field of anthropological studies has also been a bright light to follow. I also started to realize my interest in technical specialist writers after having started TNIDG, for instance when re-reading Thomas Bernhard’s amazing collection of extremely short stories (The Voice Imitator, 1978) and recently seeing an art exhibition dedicated to William Burroughs (Cut-ups, Cut-ins, Cut-outs, The Art of William S. Burroughs, Kunsthalle Wien 2012).
These two master writers made me recognize and embrace more clearly the utilitarian influences of the court reporter, the private investigator and the (ever fading from view) small town news reporter. And to be sentimental, at the end of the day I think I write each entry with the hope that I am creating something that might have made Kurt Vonnegut happy, if he were still here with us today. I will close with one of his famous quotes that seems appropriate to our discussion:
“Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.” (Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 1969)
For more information over Jeff Luckey’s work, please visit www.jeffluckey.net.