Assorted thoughts on photographs and souvenirs
Dan Heller's online photography tutorial hints at a curious affinity between tourist photography and the documentation of performance art events. Heller notes, "An 'inventory picture' is one you take to prove you were there. A 'good picture' is one that gives your subject a more accurate sense of place." (www.danheller.com/tech-tourism.html#2) In many ways the forms that tourist photography and videography take echo the documentary imperative that becomes part and parcel with ephemeral performance art. The photographs a tourist takes, even if they are "good pictures," as Heller puts it, are also always "inventory pictures" -- images providing mechanical witness to a temporally distant event. Similarly, the one year performances of Tehching Hsieh, or Fluxus-styled happenings result in the production of a large number of 'good pictures' that are also 'inventory pictures' -- images that attest to the materiality and the reality of the performance. So too, museums and galleries might exhibit the detritus left by such an event (a destroyed violin, say, after a Fluxus concert), and it would not be too much of a stretch to try and fit such detritus into the category of souvenirs. As Stewart puts it, "We do not need or desire souvenirs of events that are repeatable. Rather we need and desire souvenirs of events that are reportable." (Stewart, 135) To my mind, this connection between performance art and tourist experience, suggests the degree to which the process of documentation serves to cohere and unify a given tourist itinerary -- though one might travel to 4 or 5 or more different countries on a month long tour of Europe, the act of documentation serves to unite these sites through the bodily experience of the photographer.
It is also interesting that such acts of documentation have the potential to in turn become art objects themselves. I remember rather often seeing, as an undergraduate, student art shows that invariably featured the work of one or another photography student whose images and clearly come from a recent overseas vacation. I myself am also guilty of this in a way -- though I rarely take stills when I travel, since 2004 I have always taken video, and tend to re-edit whatever footage I take into short narrative and non-narrative films -- films that usually have little to do with the fact that the footage was produced through a tourist experience. This film developed out of my recent trip to Mardi Gras, as one example. Along these lines, I found Stewart's references to the religious relics, on p. 140, quite intriguing. In my own travels, I have always made an effort to tour reliquaries, or the back rooms of ancient churches where other religious relics can be found. But as Stewart points out, relics are themselves a form of souvenir, "mark[ing] the horrible transformation of meaning into materiality..." (Stewart, 140) While Stewart takes pains to theoretically distinguish such souvenirs of death from more traditional tourist souvenirs, I find it interesting to ignore the distinction, for a moment, in order to ponder the curious way in which souvenirs can become attractions in their own right (which in turn spawn souvenirs which can in turn become attractions once more). In Rome in 2005 I overheard a small group of tourists (middle-aged USians, likely upper middle class) haggling with the officials at a given historic church over the price of a given relic. While at the time I was most intrigued by the questionable legality of the transaction, in retrospect I find it exciting to think of the relic as a souvenir, that became an attraction at this church, that was soon to become a souvenir once more. Thinking similarly about the curio cabinets of antiquarians that became the prototypes for the contemporary museum, this movement from souvenir to attraction seems to underly a great number of tourist attractions.
Continuing this line of thinking, it might be useful to imagine the literal performance the souvenir or photograph makes necessary. While the authors we read this week all refer to the 'narrative' that the souvenir or photograph is in service of, I think it would be useful to look directly at that moment the narrative comes to be performed -- the oral retelling of the trip in a given moment with images and objects. Here the unified narrative of the journey that a given traveler develops becomes diffused and divided up -- differing narratives develop in discrete retellings based on the specific audience (ie the narrative of the nightlife of a given place for one's friends as opposed to the narrative of the cultural institutions of a given place for one's grandparents). I would be very interested in reading any studies that try to isolate and theorize the moment of retelling, as I think it might point to the difference between the forms of documentation I outline in my first paragraph, between a tourists photos and those images that might document a happening. The tourist's photos are perhaps less significant as evidence of a past event, than they are as activators of a variety of narratives.