Thursday, February 26, 2009

Today Your Host Is...

Recently, we've re-encountered some familiar artists that have got us thinking about the politics of mobility and privilege in relation to our interests in tourism. Specifically, they've got us thinking due to the unflinching confrontational nature of their gestures.
A writer friend reminded us of Jamaica Kincaid's A Small Place, as we were talking about Stephanie Black's documentary film Life and Debt that borrows from Kincaid's book. A classic post-colonial work, Kincaid's 1988 polemic (critiquing both colonial Antigua and its "independent" tourist-destination descendant), uses "You" and "I" to such direct ends that it's hard not to squirm in your seat. Even if we can believe we are "better" than the narrator's accusations, we are reminded that it is simply because we haven't been there.
Last week, we had the extreme pleasure to be in the company of Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds, who was visiting the campus of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Heap of Birds installed a new sign project titled Beyond the Chief along a prominent campus street and was here to deliver a couple of talks about his work. Beyond the Chief, like his previous sign works uses the orientation of written language - specifically writing words backwards - to call into question the subject position of the viewer in relation to the land they occupy. Heap of Birds' work reminds us that, even for those if us staying at home in North America, we are already invaders, colonizers and tourists, occupying land that was never really "free".
Both Kincaid and Heap of Birds present the humanity of confrontation in the face of indifference, inertia and a past that simply cannot be reasonably reconciled. The humanity they ask us to consider can never be universal, as it is always grounded in the reality of displacement and violence that takes place by taking a place. The specifics of the colonized matches that of the colonizer.
So what is the potential for the tourist? For those that offer only a mobile gaze? We'll get back to this with a discussion of John Urry, Gregory Ulmer, Dean MacCannell, Renee Green, Phaedra C. Pezzullo and some others...

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