This is the second installment of Cabinet’s “traveling interview.” The idea for this regular feature is simple. We asked someone, A, to have a conversation with B about a topic of his or her choice. B’s sole promise was to in turn have a conversation with someone else (C) for the following issue. The participants have full decision over whom they choose and what they will discuss.
A=Dean MacCannell, author of The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class and Professor of Environmental Design and Chair of Landscape Architecture at University of California Davis.
B=Lucy Lippard, author of 20 books on contemporary art and cultural criticism, including Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America and The Lure of the Local. She lives in Galisteo, New Mexico.
C=Kathy Vargas, artist based in San Antonio, Texas, where she is also Director of the Visual Arts Program at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center.
LL: As a lifelong resident of a tourist town like San Antonio, what does being a tourist (there or elsewhere) mean to you?
KV: I have to admit that sometimes the tourists make me a little crazy. But San Antonio is really a sweet city. If tourists come up and ask for directions, we usually go out of our way for them. We tend to be polite. We like people. But we also understand that a lot of the local economy is tourist based. We understand that we need to find ways to make each other comfortable, tourists and natives. The only time I’m really impatient with tourists is when I see their cameras pointed at me. This happened much more when I was much younger and usually in La Villita, a small arts and crafts area where I was sitting in a friend’s art gallery and taking drawing classes. My face is obviously indigenous, and then there was the very long hair. So I don’t know if it was because I fit a specific “type” (or exactly what the type was—Latina, Native American, artist, hippie?). A camera was aimed at me from time to time, and it was intrusive. I would just duck out of the way and keep going. But I couldn't understand why exactly they felt it was okay to do this. I wasn't performing, I wasn’t “on display.” Most of the time now I don't see the tourists anymore, because I don't go where they are, and they don't generally come where I am—which is sometimes too bad. They think they’re seeing the full range of Latino culture when they go to the Riverwalk for folkloric dancing. I wonder what they’d think if they were to see a contemporary Chicano play that talks about social issues, or an exhibit of contemporary Latino art with cultural references that are San Antonio-and South Texas-specific. I feel bad because they’re missing out on so much; they’re just scratching the surface. At the same time, maybe they don't want to know everything. I guess that's at the heart of tourism: How much do you get to take away and how do you carry it home—in your head, in your heart, or in photos? And how much can anyone absorb in a short visit?
I remember your indignation about the municipal emphasis on tourists instead of locals (“What about the people who live here?”).
That was when I was working at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. A lot of city arts funding was premised on the idea that our events had to have tourist attendance, and except for one or two, they generally didn’t. So we'd sit there trying to figure out how to appeal to tourists without altering our content—or even how to get the word out to tourists that it was safe to go to the West Side, where the Guadalupe is located and which is generally thought of as “unsafe.” My reaction was well, okay, we can try to have tourists attend, but what about the tons of local community people who are already attending? Don't they count? Even though it’s tourist money that funds the arts, shouldn't the arts’ emphasis also be on bettering the lives of the people who live here, rather than just on tourist appeal? In a tourist town, we have to walk a fine line between appealing to tourists so that the economy keeps rolling but also being there for the local folks who need the arts as well, and whose lives are often vastly improved by the arts. Another thing that often bugs me is that when non-Latino artists who are not from San Antonio or familiar with this region get commissions to create public art in the city. They are often drawn to the Latino culture. So they want the resident Latinos to explain it all to them, give them cultural imagery to use, and allow them to appropriate just about everything. These outside artists often never really comprehend the culture or its symbols. The folks who hired them think it's great that they’ve latched onto Latino culture, even though there’s often only a superficial understanding, and public art commissions go to non-Latinos who are just using our imagery. Yet when Latino artists who are from here use the same imagery, they’re often considered “too provincial,” and their cultural language is seen as limited. So here’s a paradigm: If a non-Latino artist comes into the city from the outside and he/she wants to use Latino imagery, that reality is seen as new, innovative, conceptual. Great. But if a local Latino wants to use that same imagery, then it’s “primitive” or too parochial. Bad paradigm.
How did your “My Alamo” series get started?
It got started when Chon Noriega asked me to participate in a project that would visually examine Chicano photographers’ relationships with the American West. Well, automatically it would be different from the mainstream concept, since most of the West was Mexican before it was “American” (as in US American). I had to think about the “icons” and how they’re communicated. When I was a little kid we had the Davy Crockett show. I knew Crockett was an Indian fighter. In mainstream culture, in the mid-1950s, that was a good thing to be, a proud thing. Yet my father had always told us we were descendents of Indians, Mexican Indians. Davy Crockett was also a hero of the Alamo, maliciously killed by Mexicans, the bad guys. And I knew, from my father, that my great, great grandfather had been at the Alamo on the Mexican side. So for a six-year-old kid this was pretty heavy stuff—the fact that the mainstream culture might see me as the bad guy and that Davy Crockett might not be as wonderful as I was being told he was. Who to believe? Like most little kids, I believed my dad. Those issues, and my own very personal continuing relationship with the Alamo, were the themes I played with in “My Alamo.” The other reason for doing that series was that one day I was watching the local news and somewhere in the city there had been a re-enactment of the Battle of the Alamo where the “heroes” of the Alamo, the Texans, had been allowed to win. I wondered about all the tourists who might have been watching and not realized that history had been just plain changed. Then I realized that we change history all the time—not only those who write it but those who have to live with it. So I decided to put my personal history (because all history is personal) down on paper. Hey, at least I said it was “my” history. Most historians don’t make that clear at all.
We’ve traveled together (as tourists) and I don’t recall your taking any pictures. Is that because of the handmade nature of your own work or is it a reaction to being a “subject/object” living in a tourist destination?
I generally don’t take my camera on trips. I did once, when I was in my early twenties. I wanted to photograph some of the people begging in front of a church in Laredo, and I did. I did it because even then I knew that the history of photography wanted me to—all those photos of the “colorful natives, the poor, the sad—so moving” by a century of well-known photographers. Right in the middle of that I realized that I wanted to stop. At the time I wasn’t making manipulated images. I was taking photos in my neighborhood, which was full of people, neighbors, friends, and relatives, who were relatively poor and were mostly Latino and African-American. But these were people I knew well; people who wanted to be photographed because they wanted copies for themselves; people who would tell me very clearly how they wanted to be depicted. These were people who would give me feedback very quickly; people to whom I was answerable. That was not the case in Laredo. I was never going to see those folks again. And I realized they were just “subjects” to me, the sources of my “good pictures.” And I just didn’t want to do that. It wasn’t a choice I agonized over. It was a gut reaction. I just put the camera down without consciously verbalizing it. I guess it was a reaction to being considered fodder for the camera myself.
Has reading theory or looking at other artists’ work on tourism/ travel affected the way you see new places? Did “My Alamo” change the way you saw your hometown?
“My Alamo” didn’t change the way I saw my hometown. It did help me verbalize it. Some people got upset with me. But finally I realized that was okay. I think that’s what changed. I changed, my hometown didn’t. As for reading theory, looking at other artists’ work, etc.—all of that changes the way I see new places. Obviously, I learn to expect certain things. I build up visual expectations of places. I expect San Francisco to be foggy or Los Angeles to be sunny because that’s the way they look in pictures. Sometimes photos reinforce our images of places and sometimes they change them. Every now and then you have a photographer who invests so much of himself or herself into a place that you realize it could never really be like that, because what you’re seeing is a place inside the image maker, not a physical place at all. I had that reaction recently when I picked up a photo book by Richard Gere, of all people. It’s called Pilgrim, and it’s photos of Tibet, India, Buddhist temples, priests, pilgrims, etc. When I saw that book my first thought was that I didn’t know Tibet was still like that. Then I realized that it wasn’t a picture book about Tibet. It was a picture book of a quest. The images were made over a fifteen to twenty-year period, and they weren’t about being a tourist. I realized that even if I went to Tibet looking for those pictures or that experience, I couldn’t find it because what he was showing me was internal. It wasn’t about the strange people he’d seen or the odd places, it was about how he had been changed by a place. Most of us don’t have it in us to undergo that kind of change. We’re too bound up in our own cultural expectations. We have preconceived notions of the places we go to and it’s hard for us to get around these preconceptions to really see what’s there. You know: You go to Paris and you have to go to the Louvre; you go to London and you have to go see the Tower. Maybe the best way to be a tourist is to keep going back to the same place for twenty years until it gets under your skin. After you get to know it that well—then you can take your pictures.
Kathy Vargas is an artist based in San Antonio, Texas.
Lucy Lippard has written twenty books on contemporary art and culture, including Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America and The Lure of the Local. She lives in Galisteo, New Mexico, where she edits the community newsletter.
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