From The Expediency of Culture by George Yúdice: “Alongside technological innovation there has mushroomed an extraordinary urban activity… fortifying the social fabric of bars, restaurants, chance encounters on the streets, etc. that give life to a place.”
Yúdice’s book argues that the role of culture has “expanded in an unprecedented way into the political and economic at the same time that conventional notions of culture largely have emptied out.” Making the above point during a discussion about Bilbao’s Guggenheim museum, he’s demonstrating a phenomenon whereby a city or area experiences a renaissance through cultural infrastructure. Museums, galleries, or any kind of commodified cultural experience can act as jump-start expedients that attract people in a kind of chicken-and-egg type situation. People start to come because they believe there is culture, despite the fact that in this process they are creating a new culture. They are creating inspirational travel experiences, not finding them.
The implicit irony is that although people often feel compelled to travel, relocate, or even live a “digital nomad” lifestyle to seek some kind of organic inspiration they feel is not endemic to their life, most of the activity they engage in once they move is provided by a service, and ideas about culture are exchanged mostly when money is exchanged. In such an arrangement, inspiration effectively costs money — it has become a resource. Is the way that we “source” inspirational travel detracting us from creating sustainable travel?
This is not to say that the essence of creativity or culture in this arrangement is completely fabricated or inorganic, but it has been distilled into an easily communicable form, compressed in the way that the YouTube codec converts a video file into a stream. Maybe that allows us to better understand when another when we travel, but further irony arises when travelers claim to be seeking out “authentic” local experiences, to truly “immerse” themselves in a place — as if the tourist infrastructure that arose to directly serve them is offensive, or lacks genuine character. Imagine every culture on earth capitalizing on its heritage to attract visitors, at least until we get bored and complain that it’s become too commercial and move on to the next one that catches our eye.
I think of Teju Cole’s words, from On the Blackness of the Panther: “A zoo, with its echoes of early science and colonial practice, can feel like the opening chapter of a given country. It’s often as though the logic of a society’s organization has been reduced to the fundamentals in a zoo, where there are the rulers and the ruled, types and typologies, symbols everywhere and meaning nowhere.”
So long as we see travel as the search for authentic, life-giving experiences that enrich us, the more we will only assert a specific worldview onto other communities that might be developing in other directions or on the basis of entirely different values — we have been taught to look at countries and societies with less resources than we possess as underdeveloped or developing, when they have in fact been developed from a cultural point of view for a much longer time than some of our countries have even existed. Even when we think of our travel experiences as mutually beneficial economic exchanges, author Mavi Parra makes the point that it is too difficult too often to know where our dollars are going, and if the communities where we spend them are enjoying the benefits of our activity.
Whether you’ve been making sourdough or writing songs in the lockdown of the last few months, hopefully you’ve noticed that finding inspiration or creativity is a lot like panning for gold, except that just standing in the stream is most of the fun. If you manage to make something great at the end of the day, that’s a wonderful bonus, but it’s just that: a bonus. When we travel again, we know that we will be more likely to take road trips and generally stay closer to home. But we need to be conscious of exactly what we “take,” whether it’s a trip or a photograph. Do we need to take inspiration from somewhere in order to make something? I don’t know a concrete answer to that question, but I do know that there is nowhere better to source the “local” and “authentic” experiences than in your own home. After you’ve no doubt become more intimate than ever with it recently, I understand if that makes you want to hit me, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
If you’re like me, your natural response to all the turmoil, confusion, and unrest of recent days has been to want to throw your arms around the world, a longing made all the more agonizing by the fact that… you can’t right now. But maybe you never could. Maybe all we’ve ever been able to do is make a difference within our arms’ reach, and right now each of our communities needs more love than ever. Sometimes it might feel very small, especially when our newsfeeds and devices constantly feed us the world, but a million small acts of kindness have to add up. They have to.