Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Journey West (via a journey East)

Travel Office friends Stephanie Rothenberg and Dan Wang recently opened a travel agency in Beijing called "The Journey West." Along with fellow guides Steve Brill, Sarah Kanouse, Trevor Paglen, we offered our tour of parking in Hollywood, CA. Of course, we really love this, as it's a kind-of store front parallel to our Stories in Reserve guide book series. We also love the tension between the believability of the tours as purchasable, the experiences the tours offer, and the unbelievability of them being offered in the first place.
This reminds us of a 1995 film by Marlon Fuentes titled Bontoc Eulogy (mostly because we recently re-watched it). The film is a meditation on identity and post-colonial violence, by way of the display of Filipino peoples at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair and the story of the film maker's grandfather's experience as an object of that display. It presents itself as a personal investigation into family history, a tour through history in the form of a documentary. And the film is a tour of sorts, but is anything but a straightforward document of history. What is gained by the slippage in belief, truth, evidence and experience offered by the film? We might offer that the experience of the film as documentary could be considered equivalent to the experience of place one expects from a guided tour. As John Berger once said of the difference between seeing a painting in reproduction and seeing the painting in real life, I am in front of it. I can see it.
The film, as documentary, functions as evidence of a story that happened, just as the tour functions as evidence of a place that exists.
Guided tours are being used in many ways that start to unravel the conventions of their mediation, as films like Bontoc Eulogy do. The physical experience of place offered by tours, however, offers some interesting, and we think productive, tensions not found in film. The Journey West is one great example, and one that shows the power of simply offering the experience as possible.