Tuesday, June 4, 2013

THE DESTRUCTION OF PLACE



It is a simple as this: the true souvenir has become a thing of the past, well, at least the equivalent of a very rare and endangered species: see http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/02/on-souvenirs-place-memories.html and http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/02/my-souvenir.html  One used to visit places so unique and special - or is this the visitor’s experience of place?: perhaps, hopefully both - that specific mementoes from the area were purchased as talismans that might extend the perceptions into different futures: the souvenirs. In dissimilar, possibly more familiar and casually perceived places, these token keepsakes provoke and prolong memory: their identity becomes the prompt. Remembrance is the essence of the keepsake, reminding - being put into mind again. The question is: does the individuality of the souvenir, its provenance, modify understandings?




The problem today is globalization. Everywhere is not only becoming the same, but one uses the same machines to get there and to get around when there; one stays at the same hotels, in the same rooms, all filled with the same furniture, using the same equipment, while eating the same breakfast, using the same implements, even when in the most isolated B&Bs. Sameness is pervasive. Ruskin writes of his family’s annual trip to the continent, noting that it was always the same - the same carriage, the same hotels, the same hotel rooms, the same views, etc. - adding that it was ‘all the more beautiful for being familiar’: (see Brantwood). If one had a choice, the repetition might be as enjoyable as seeing the face of an old friend, but matters are unfortunately different when an awkward intimacy is enforced as a necessity, the norm, irrespective of place and person, with no alternative and no variety on offer, or any preferences acknowledged or catered for. All differences are smudged with a corporate anonymity that displays a universal, international craft. Here experience becomes an imposition to endure rather than a revelation to discover: take it or leave it. Place is given all the character and flimsiness of a film set and comes to be seen as such. Tourism is very much like entertainment.




The brand IKEA sets the example for this knowing encounter. It is likely to appear anywhere, even in the remotest parts of this world. A tiny refurbished traditional cottage in the Out Skerries of the Shetland Islands, an hour’s ferry trip east from Mainland, was found to be completely fitted out with items from this Norwegian company: from furniture and lighting, to kitchen, cutlery, cookware, gadgets, pillows and bed covers. Everything was recognizable as the branded object, available everywhere as DIY flat packs and packages with exotic names. Even places that are uniquely special are dragged into the same singular vision, the identical perception, where not only are the fixtures and fittings familiar, but also the hordes of tourists, different people speaking different languages all doing the same thing: wearing the same clothes, using the same equipment - cameras, videos, mobile phones, walking sticks - reading the same guide, seeking the same experience -‘as seen on TV’ - while listening to the same stories on the same audio equipment. One realizes how dominant technology is when it is able to diminish language and cultural differences with an easy accommodation of every variation. It is a sad state of affairs that makes a mockery of humanity with its claims on individual sensitivity, meaning and expression, and its ambitions for diversity. The concepts become mere spin that derides all expectations of a new and different experience when the SONY, for example, is put into every hand for understanding, exploration or communication.




Even the little quirky gifts that one used to be able to bring back for friends and family: siblings, parents, children, grandchildren, colleagues, and the like, (they all expect a little ‘something’ from beyond), turn out to be available at home, cheaper. On the remote island of Unst, that promotes itself with the classic cliché of being the most northerly of everything in Britain, which it is, there was an intriguing bouncing egg in one island store. It looked great fun, a real surprise. We had never seen one previously. So it was purchased, only to find out when home in Australia that it was available in the nearby shopping centre, on sale! In France, Brittany, it was exciting to discover boules for children, a set of six small but weighty colourful plastic spheres filled with water. Wow! What a gift for the young ones! Unique! French! The irrational enthusiasm of the tourist takes over as one cannot resist the purchase: see - http://springbrooklocale.blogspot.com.au/2012/06/who-or-what-is-tourist.html  And yes, the local ‘cheap as chips’ shop had these sets at home, a discovery made only after lugging about two kilos across the skies of the world! Even a quirkily silly edible Christmas decoration seen in the Unst shop was discovered on the reject shelf at the local shopping centre. Thankfully it had been assessed as being too fragile to carry home. It seems that everything great and small, serious and silly has spread across our flattened world, the global village that Marshall McLuhan once spoke of with a great contagious enthusiasm. One wonders what he might think of this development. Did he envisage a place so lacking in texture and variation?




In Iceland, Seydisfjordur, see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/09/norwegian-wood-and-corrugated-iron.html , a small village at the end of a deep fiord on the east coast of the island, a region so remote that it is described in The Lonely Planet as ‘The Empty East,’ had shops full of everything Chinese and Indian that could be purchased elsewhere else. The only non-Chinese/Indian souvenirs available that one could be sure would never turn up at home, Australia, were some unusual small turned brass pieces that were shaped as goblets, looking a little like the iconic championship cups on the shelf without the bands of ribbons and the florid declaration of the engraving. The goblets were hardly usable. They were more symbolic pieces of craft that defined a skill or a pastime, but they were 'local'. see. http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/03/what-is-local_12.html and http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/03/being-local.html - well, made, we were told, by an old man, a retired ship’s engineer, who lived in the village. This fact was declared on the underside of the flat, circular base of the goblets in beautifully crude, shaky engraving that spelt out his name and that of the village as a circular graphic. The pieces held a unique, almost antique, quality in their naivety. They were true excrescences of place, even if imperfect. Computers change our expectations by demanding exactness, every time, as they demean the admiration of anything hand made by seeing it as messy and inept, naïve and incompetent - in the same way that handwriting has become unacceptable, not convincing or credible. Just as the objects on sale everywhere are the same, computers make everything appear identical, identically perfect - of the one expression and concept: singular, one-dimensional. They mock diversity and difference with their cold precision.




On these goblets, spelled out gorgeously, in a roughly circular array was the personal representation of identity, of the goblet’s provenance, concealed but strikingly memorable when discovered hacked in with its uniquely trembling, unpretentious characters spelling out ‘Seydisfjordur’ and the craftsman’s name. The first glimpse suggested that these rude, skewed block letters had defaced the piece, but the commitment to mark the piece showed that the maker was obviously proud of his work. There was an intimate relationship to both person and body here. One could sense the hands working, the touch. These items were expensive, like everything in Iceland used to be - those were the days! - but they were a real part of the place; they held an intimate charm that was true of the original souvenir: useless but originally, quaintly local with an intimately unique but quirky relationship with a tiny particular part of the world - specific to person and place.




In character, these pieces were similar to the Baltasound souvenirs in the Unst Heritage Museum: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/02/my-souvenir.html  These porcelain cups are beautifully marked in fluid script with the genteel ‘A Present from Baltasound,’ an inlet in the centre of the island; and ‘A Present from the Westing,’ a small pebbled beach on the west coast of this tiny piece of rock, 12 miles by 5 miles. The sentiments expressed on the fine china suggested the respectful gesture of obeisance. There was something modest and polite in this fragile delicacy; it was humbling. The cups revealed the refined sentiments of another era that referenced such miniscule areas. The souvenirs were not from ‘Unst’ or from ‘Shetland’, as the Chinese tea towels are today; they were from particular locations on a small part of the island of Unst in Shetland. They were, like the little chalices, true souvenirs. We purchased two brass goblets, pleased that they were not flimsy or breakable. They were the only things taken home from Iceland, well, apart from the raw fish, (eaten on the way before customs took them), and some sundry supplies. Oh, yes, and playing cards with a wonderful array of photos of Iceland. Refreshingly, each card was different. They were attractive; informative too, one of the least likely things to be seen here in Australia, although one could never be sure of this.






The struggle to find the souvenir that will not beat you home, let alone being cheaper there, is becoming harder. Even Australian souvenirs are mostly ‘Made in China.’ One has nothing against China; but as icons of place and experience, the ‘foreign’ memento lacks an integral authenticity, that sense of being rooted in original origins; of having been touched by local people living in the specific place being visited. These origins can truly share and anchor memories in the same identity and substance sensed in experience, rather than bypassing place or detouring through distance and another culture’s interpretation of it, for whatever reason. This convenience has nothing to do with the provenance of any item other than being a replica of some invented relationship that can be sold at a tempting price to maximize profit. It seems that the keepsake only has to look the part to be usefully attractive enough to make a sale. Such phantoms lack coherence and depth; indeed, they mock them.




It is a charade, a fakery that could be stimulated by the lack of craft and the growing number of tourists, but the rigour of place and experience fade into a make-believe ‘cheap as; good enough’ thing that is sold for a fortune disguised in the unfamiliar currency. This is the game where tourists are ‘ripped off’ repeatedly, as their transitory status limits time and choice, and opens up opportunities to be manipulated by ‘cheats’ - see: “ . . . London where cheats live by chance customers.” http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/02/on-souvenirs-place-memories.html..




Is this amorphous blurring of everything a concern? Is the lack of differentiation deforming visions of place? Is the variety of visions ever encompassed in the same patterns, the same pieces, and the same publications that appear everywhere as mementoes? Are these replicas enough to hold and enhance the unique identities of location and its experience? Does cynicism eventually intervene? These illusions of integrity are all becoming fused into a global experience where the one item, the imported souvenir, is collected by all and sundry everywhere to remind many of a variety of differences from diverse locations. McHulan’s vision held a quaint and attractive sense in the 1970s, but we seem to have developed a global corporate city that is forcing everything into a cohesive unit that is managed by our technology - the Internet - using tablets and mobile phones that have become our filters to our understanding of and perception of wonder. The enchantment of the world is getting ‘flatter’ everyday with its disarming lack of fascination because we have seen it all before.




It is ironic that a culture shaped by the rigours of science and physics - that knows the world is round; that has seen it from space, is creating the universal vision of it in both experience and memory. Does this diminish us? Must we work to recreate our villages, globally but separately - regionally; locally - in that most miniature of interpretations that develops a difference in the other side of the street? – see http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/03/being-local.html  Once we are able to be invigorated by crossing the street and noticing the difference, and being excited by this, then we will have a world worth sharing, and a world where souvenirs could be true to their place. These places will have futures both in reality and memory - in being. Place is being destroyed, buried beneath the load of life's boring distractions and frustrations It is after all an ephemeral understanding of space and time as personal experience. Aldo van Eyck, in that forgotten classic Team 10 Primer, called for the modernist’s emphasis on space - promoted in Bruno Zevi’s Architecture as Space - to be transformed into place. ‘Place, not space,’ was able to include personal lives and humanize the cold intellectual rationalism of space. It is interesting to ponder how our era of ‘space exploration’ is remote, global and impersonal.




What does the souvenir from everywhere do to our perception and memory of place? What do we now carry home with us but stories of events, incidents, occurrences, failures, disasters, and sheer joy? It appears that it is no longer place or the experience of place that is the core of memory, rather the experience of the event, of my presence, my part in the story of the visit that gets restated: “Oh, when we were at ….”; and “You should have seen the crowds . . . ” and similar introductions to a narrative. Has it always been so? Have souvenirs become mere prompts for stories about ME rather than items to recall the experience of place? "Look at me in my silly hat!"




Does the global object alter our understanding and appreciation of place in the everyday? Does everything get numbed with similarity, with the suspicion of the ‘pretend’ souvenir used to mark real experience? Is this why stories that exaggerate difference have taken over? Can love communicate via a foreign fake to reproduce feeling for space and place at another time? Is sincerity possible with such games and variations? Does the memory of place get perverted? Does experience get tainted? Do shallow memories change our understandings and perceptions of our being there? What value is there in authenticity? If nothing is authentic, then everything is something else: what is this ‘something else’? Does it matter? Is it some in-between thing that mediates by disguise and pretence to stimulate a phantom of meaning? Authenticity seems to be the core issue. Our world is becoming more and more amorphous, an ill-defined conglomerate seeking meaning without the means to accommodate or express it. Is place becoming the same? Are we losing our feeling for the significance of place? As designers, have we lost an ability to recreate feeling in envisaged place?




It may be so; but memories of place still linger longingly: the Louvre courtyard; the grand Tiananmen Square; little Loches, and more, still have a lingering richness that is in danger of being lost in the world haze. It is a richness rooted in diversity and difference. The things that are remembered are the details and the differences. Theory once argued for regionalism until it became a cliché; but context is the core of authenticity where small is beautiful. Fritz Schumacher wrote a book of this title in 1970s, and it still holds true. The things that really matter are the little things, the miniscule pieces. We become engrossed in ‘moving forward’ as the terrible political slogan declares, and while we forget where we have come from, we seek out leaps and bounds rather than take any time to peruse or consider our separate steps. There is much wisdom in things past that we stride away from, believing that it is all just old ideas. Until we discard this concept of, this ambition for the grand and big new gesture and embrace circumstances intimately and with a caring, open considerate mind, we will be in danger of forgetting the importance of diversity. Things ‘global’ seek out the grand scale; they ‘think big.’




The more our world becomes the same, the more we lose. Our instant global connections might entrance with their social wizardry, amazing us as we get distracted in a sea of the same. Yet, in spite of the concern with sameness, there is one aspect that says that we need to find similarities to co-exist in what is known as ‘peace and harmony.’ This may be true, but until we cherish our differences and tolerate and enjoy these rather than use them to discriminate, we will be in danger of making everything more and more bland. Nature thrives in bio-diversity - the greater, the healthier; and so too do societies and cultures. Place is the capsule, the container of the location, for encounter, for activity, and for identity. It needs to be authentic and remembered as such if we are to be enriched, even with kitsch souvenirs. The essence is integrity and coherence: the subtle intertwining of feeling and expression that has specific roots in place and people that can become the example for more real quality and susbtance everywhere, for tourism only distorts - see: http://springbrooklocale.blogspot.com.au/2012/06/who-or-what-is-tourist.html  We must shape our place for ourselves and forget about recreating it for visitors, because we all become visitors at one stage in our lives. What is needed to capture this individual quality is community: place is community, not singular space.



If we are to expect authenticity in our souvenirs, then we must make our own places authentic first. If we seek to recall experience of place with a souvenir, then it too must be authentic. If place has integrity, then souvenirs will have it too, because true authenticity demands its own veracity.

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