Fall 2001

The Traveling Interview: The First Leg

The lure of the local

Dean MacCannell and Lucy Lippard

This is the first installment of Cabinet’s “traveling interview.” The idea for this regular feature was simple. We were to ask someone, let’s call that person A, to have a conversation with someone, 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 issue after. The participants have full decision over whom they will choose and what topic they will discuss.

Our hope is that we will travel into the most astonishing nooks and crannies of culture and society, that we will become the ultimate tourists taken on a strange exotic journey. And that, of course, is also the problem with the idea of a traveling interview. The fantasy of tourism in all its troubling dimensions is at the heart of such an idea. That is why our choice for A was Dean MacCannell, whose book The Tourist from 1976 established the parameters for the serious study of tourism as a cultural practice. His choice for B was art historian and cultural critic Lucy Lippard, several of whose books also address the question of tourism and travel. Lippard’s interview with C will appear in issue 5 of Cabinet.

Dean MacCannell: Your approach to contemporary art in The Lure of the Local and On the Beaten Track appears to valorize regionally-based and place-specific art over the great centers which purport to produce art that is timeless and universal in its appeal. Can you comment?

Lucy Lippard: To begin with, an either/or approach isn’t necessary. I’m just more interested at this point in my life in the conventionally less valorized, having OD’ed to some extent on high art, which is often overrated and constructed as “high” mainly in opposition to the “low”—which, being contrary, I’ve often espoused.

I go to museums and “monuments” when I’m in a big city. But that’s less and less now, so I seek out other things. I’ve heard the stories of the famous stuff for most of my life, but the stories of the anonymous, the local, the funky, the de-valorized, are often unfamiliar and therefore more intriguing. (Hey, I’m an Amurrican and I need to be entertained; I need The New.) And the things I like may sound offbeat, but are in fact the stuff of really cosmopolitan travel. Reverse snobbism.

When you are about to travel someplace 
you have not been before, how do you go about deciding what to see, to visit, who to meet?

It’s been a long time since I’ve taken a very long trip to one place. Living in the West, I find travel is as much driving as stopping. I’m big on views, but not necessarily those that They want me to stop at. I look at maps rather than tour books, though I admit to having a basket of torn-out (and torn-up) newspaper clippings about places off rather than on the beaten track that I might want to see if I ever go in that direction. Usually it’s pretty random. Wonder what’s down that road. Let’s stop here. Where’s a good place to walk the dog? Dairy Queens often figure high on the list, as do local cafes, museums, inaccurate historical markers, archæological sites, tiny towns, general stores, trading posts, etc. I’m not a shopper (except in visitor-center bookstores). The people come with the place. If it’s a professional visit I might look someone up I’ve heard about or a friend has directed me to or I’ve hoped to meet. Otherwise, any place is a surprise package.

Would you be willing to give some examples from your collection of clippings of the off-beat “attractions” that you may want to visit someday?

Well, I have visited the Rattlesnake Museum in Albuquerque, and the ballpoint-pen collection in the museum of the Pinto Bean Capital of the World in Moriarty, New Mexico. But haven’t yet made it to the Cockroach Hall of Fame in Plano, Texas, or the Museum of Bathroom Tissue in Madison, Wisconsin, or the Funeral Services Museum in Houston. I’m equally fond of the funky little local museums that miserably misrepresent their history but have their own charm. Once fell for a two-headed calf (deceased) on a blue-velvet pillow in such a place in Nicaragua years ago...

Is it possible to discern in your analysis 
of tourist attractions and regionally based art the foundation for an ethics of sightseeing?

Tourism is about curiosity, which killed the cat. I haven’t worked out an ethics of sight-seeing, and I’m often all too aware that even if I think I’m being ethical, those being seen have no way to know I’m not just as amoral as anyone else who’s staring at their places.

All tourists are intruders on one level or another. If I’m shy and reserved, I can be seen as aloof and superior. If I’m chatty and friendly, I can be seen as matronizing and rude. Tourists just have to take their chances. In the city, most of us try to look cool and somewhat knowledgeable; in a small town we try to look like “down-home” folks; in a truly “foreign” context (like a New Mexico pueblo), I just try to be inconspicuous. All of this doesn’t amount to an ethic, so much as basic courtesy.

Basic courtesy may be at the heart of ethics.

Add a camera and the ante is upped. It’s downright evil to take pictures of people unless you are invited to. That can go for their homes and landscapes too, if they have opted for their privacy. (Last week on the Navajo Nation I took a picture of a sign saying not to take pictures and made sure I didn’t get the hogan behind the sign. But if somebody had come along they would never have believed me.) In some cases, asking for permission works, but often that’s a power move, exploitation, etc. It’s gotten to the point where we don’t seem to remember without some kind of record, and much as I love photographs, I’m likely better off without them much of the time.

How about local peoples who, either on 
their own or with the help of promoters, 
are “selling” their distinctive way of life as 
a tourist attraction? Would you still feel 
as scrupulous about photographing them?

That constitutes an “invitation” as such. I’d probably wish them the best but decline to participate, given my own snobbism, authority problem, misplaced tourist pride, and so forth. Unless, of course, the promoters were irresistibly wacky or innovative, in which case they become artists. Then anything goes.

There is an implied vision in On the Beaten Track that the grid of tourist attractions in any given place could benefit from the intervention of artists. Can you elaborate on this and mention how an artistic-tourist vision of place may differ from a corporate-tourist vision.

I probably overstated my case for artists to be involved in the tourist business. Artists might be just as bad as anyone else at presenting a place they didn’t know from the inside (and insiders are all too aware of the pitfalls, especially if they want to keep on living there). But artists do tend to see obliquely, even sometimes to see through. My favorite kind of artist will present a marvelously cranky and critical viewpoint that can open other eyes, but of course it might be counterproductive vis-à-vis commercial tourism. A few years ago I suggested that performance artists be the tour guides around Santa Fe’s still unrealized Railyard area. But quirky local people would also be good. Anyone who both respects the place in question and has a sense of humor and outrage. Ideally, ethically, I guess local people would be better, and artists should work with local people if they’re going to pretend to give the inside story instead of a bunch of condescending clichés. (They could also provide a totally ignorant and entertaining view, and variations thereupon.)

But none of this makes much sense unless we’re talking about a specific site, because each site comes with its own set of premises (so to speak), its own rules, its own inhabitants...

If you could “curate” an entire region of the United States, i.e., decide what should be listed for the “tour” and how it should be marked, what region would you chose?

I’d love to curate the Southwest, since it’s my current love and home. But I think that instead of telling people to go here and go there, I’d recommend a random approach, with lots of maps, a little knowledge, an open mind, a sense of humor, a willingness to risk discomfort or even (gasp) boredom. One thing leads to another and who knows what’s in store—working toward something like William Least Heat Moon’s “deep map.”

Ideally, no two people would do the same thing, so there wouldn’t be obvious “destinations” and a route cast in stone, and towns done in by tourism. A “custom tour” might take into consideration how good or bad the tourist is at walking, talking, listening, seeing, etc., and send him/her off accordingly.

The missing link in most tourist planning is those who are being toured, who are rarely consulted about how they want their place presented; what a community is proud of; what is off bounds and on. (Of course I probably wouldn’t agree with half my neighbors if we all spoke our minds.) This is what’s interesting (and frustrating) about Native American lands. They know what they want and they usually let you know in no uncertain terms, having paid a high price for the privilege. People living in ghettos and barrios have perhaps unintentionally scared tourists off and figure if you’re wandering around their hood you must be either dumber or hipper than you look.

I live in a lovely, quiet, “picturesque” village (with both trailers and old adobe houses) and I have my own tour that no guest of mine escapes. However, I’d think twice about “curating” it into my list unless it were the weekend of our Studio Tour, when the place is crawling with very welcome souls who are going to buy local art and food. The balance would be hard to maintain unless there were a remarkably sensitive tourist bureau involved. What if every “destination” were able to determine its own “symbolic capital” (David Harvey), to draw their own boundaries like the Indian pueblos. Does becoming a tourist site mean you have to sell your soul, or is there another way of doing it? (And I don’t just mean “tasteful” exploitation.) Actually “curating” is an odd term for this activity because the result of curating is a “show” or an “exhibition.” It’s almost always static; everybody gets the same initial experience. Even so-called “participatory” shows tend to be hard to customize. You can only go so far. In the Southwest you can go really far out. If you speak Spanish or Navajo or Tewa you can go even further. Then again, curating means “caring for,” so on second thought that’s kind of a nice term if followed to the letter.

Lucy Lippard has written 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, where she edits the community newsletter.

Dean MacCannell is recognized as the founder of the field of tourism studies with his books The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class and Empty Meeting Grounds. He is professor of environmental design and chair of landscape architecture at University of California Davis.

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