11 November 2010

Dark Tourism: spectacle vs barbarism


Taïka Baillargeon
For about a decade now, newspapers and travel guides have talked about a growing phenomenon called Dark Tourism which is described as ‘the act of travel and visitation to sites, attractions and exhibitions which has real or recreated death, suffering or the seemingly macabre as a main theme’.1 For some countries and particularly cities that experienced war in the last century, such tourism has become one of the most – if not the most – profitable branch of the local economy. For the purpose of tourism, sites are commonly transformed, redesigned, revamped, in order to be more accessible to the public. Malcolm Foley and John Lennon, who came up with the idea of dark tourism in 2000, talk about a ‘fundamental shift in the way which death, disaster and atrocity are being handed by those who offer associated tourism ‘products’’2 While this shift is promoted by politics, economy and media, it is often criticised, or at least questioned, amongst theorists. What is to be questioned here is not tourism itself, but the conversion of places of traumatic history into spectacles.

Some would argue that for most foreigners, going to countries that experienced wars and visiting memorials or remembrance sites seems to put them more directly in contact with a reality they don’t fully comprehend; it informs them. On the other hand, for local communities, the transformations of these places and/or their reconstruction often pushes a re-evaluation of history, forcing them to consider ethical and aesthetic values of space and building, which is necessary in order to go forward. Nevertheless, several theorists who thought about the importance of rebuilding and redesigning as an effort to embody – or simply remember – history, have mentioned their doubts on the commercialisation of theses places. The main problem is that promoting market-driven representations of history encourages reproduction instead of invention, as it keeps one prisoner of his past instead of turning him to his future; it also creates a slowing down of continuity and prevents the making of a new start. For Françoise Choay, the cult of patrimony ‘is justifiable only for a period of time: the time to take your breath in the present’s run; the time to re-insure a destiny and a reflection. Past this point in time, the mirror of patrimony would forfeit us with false conscience, fiction and repetition’.3 In this sense, even though a memory work is necessary, the ethics of it should be carefully handled.
What is to be feared here is that when history becomes a spectacle, the witness becomes a passive spectator. Although the spectacularisation of past events might have some cathartic and educational effects, it also keep the spectator uninvolved: ‘the alienation of the spectator, which reinforces the contemplated objects that result from his own unconscious activity works like this: the more he contemplates, the less he lives’.4  Guy Debord stated that ‘the spectacle is the bad dream of a modern society in chains and ultimately expresses nothing than its wish to sleep’.5   By visiting these places, spaces used and transformed for the purpose of an industry, dark tourists as well as locals might end up avoiding reality – even if unconsciously: we accept a spectacle in order to refuse a reality, to remain still, if not, detached.
While reading Foley and Lennon, I was challenged myself: what makes me want to visit post-war cities?  Although I recognise that by going to these places I want to see and experience history, I think that perhaps Foley and Lennon have left something out. Dark tourism should also be considered as a more profound search for change, movement and creation in a time of global saturation. We might not visit these cities to see the end but the beginning. We might look for what is hidden beyond the spectacle in order to find something new. We are looking for a place where invention and movement is still possible and the destruction of certain cities and buildings doesn’t only provide new spaces for construction, it forces one to innovate and create. We therefore recognise destroyed sites and post-wars zones as purely inspirational. Global saturation pushes us to search for positive barbarism as Walter Benjamin described it in Poverty and Experience: ‘Barbarism? Yes, indeed. We say this in order to introduce a new positive concept of barbarism. For what does poverty of experience do for the barbarian, it forces him to restart from scratch; to make a new start; to make a little go along way; to begin with a little and build further looking neither left nor right’.6   We, the contemporary dark tourists, are not necessarily voyeurs as we might not ‘[yearn] for new experiences’.7   We want to see and practice the making of a new start; we want to take part in the development of new mindsets.  

Belgrade – the wild
Thinking of Benjamin’s barbarism in this context also made me think of the countries that experienced wars in this context of global saturation. I then considered the wars that have occurred since the second half of the twentieth century and, referring to my own experience, I thought most particularly of Belgrade.
     During my few visits in Belgrade, I had a strong impression that everything was possible in the Serbian capital. As most Westerners, I first expected a greyish torn-down city, but then realized that despite its complex politics and critical war-history, the cradle of ex-Yugoslavia is extremely upbeat, lively and dynamic. Although the city was bombed five times during the twentieth century and regardless of the political and economic instability, the city experienced tremendous changes  – most of which were lead by the citizens themselves. In fact, Belgrade is for me a very convincing example of what positive barbarism can look like and bring in terms of cities, architecture and urbanism.

In 2002, Stealthgroup (a group of architects from Yugoslavia and the Netherlands) published an article in which they referred to Belgrade as a wild city.9  They explained that ‘the paradigm of ‘wildness’ emerged through non-planned and scarcely regulated processes. In the urban domain, these processes feature a remarkable degree of innovation and led to possibilities for redefining institutional participation in the creation of urban space. The project shows a city that acts as an incubator of new urban forms’.10  They portrayed Belgrade as a city that continuously redefines itself, presenting and analysing ‘the uncontrolled urban processes that took place in the city of Belgrade during the 1990s’.11 Since 2002, the Stealthgroup has presented many projects concerning urban development in the Balkans, always with the idea that these wild processes were to be considered by other professionals and foreigners as a powerful and creative new approach to architecture and urbanism. The main idea here is to promulgate a positive balkanisation that is very close to what Benjamin called positive barbarianism. The work of the Stealthgroup shows how the experience of war has permitted new mindsets.12  And this type of projects is – or should be – part of what makes us dark tourists, it should be what pushes us to visit a city that experienced war. We have to stop visiting the past and start visiting the new. We have to accept that war is over and acknowledge what happens afterwards.

We live in a society of the spectacle, a saturated world where everything is a reproduction, where life goes faster and faster and where competition, in every domain, forces us to go further all the time without ever fully experiencing renewal. As a result, some of us might suffer from something close to what Walter Benjamin called poverty of experience. When, following the First World War, Benjamin recognised a new poverty, it wasn’t related to the war itself but to the rapid changes that occurred after it. This rapidity never really slowed down since and what Benjamin was presenting a century ago is still present today. What is left for us is ‘to free ourselves from experience [as] we long for a world in which we can make such pure and decided use of our poverty […] that it will lead to something valuable’.13      

1  Stone, Phillip, Dark Tourism Forum, http://www.dark-tourism.org.uk, [June 2009].
2   Foley, Malcolm & John Lennon, Dark Tourism: The attraction of Death and Disaster.  London: Thompson, 2000.   p 3
3   ‘Le culte du patrimoine n’est justifiable qu’un temps : temps de reprendre souffle dans la course du présent, temps de réassurer un destin et une réflexion. Passé ce délai, le miroir du patrimoine nous abîmerait dans la fausse conscience, la fiction et la répétition.’ Choay, Françoise, L’Allégorie du patrimoine.  Paris: Seuil, 1992.  p 189
4   Debord, Guy, The Society of The Spectacle.  London: Rebel Press, 2004. p 30
5   Ibid p 10
6   Benjamin, Walter, ‘Experience and Poverty’ in Walter Benjamin. Selected Writings: Part 2, 1931-1934. edited by Michael W. Jenning, Howard Eiland & Gary Smith. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2005.  p 732
 7  Ibid p 734
8   1914 and 1915 (WW1), 1941 and 1944 (WW2), 1999 (NATO).
9  The StealthGoup: Ana Dzokic, Milica Topalovic, Marc Neelen & Ivan Kucina, ‘The Wild City’ in Hunch. Berlage Institute, 2002.  pp 106-127
10  The StealthGoup, http://www.classic.archived.nl/wildcity/, [June, 2009].
11  The StealthGoup, ‘The Wild City’ in Hunch, Berlage Institute, 2002.  p 108
12  We could easily visit such concept through a political point of view, for it could be seen as close to fascism or terrorism. This should certainly be looked at, but for the purpose of this text, it is more in terms of art and raw creation. This is not to make an apology for war but to acknowledge barbarism as Benjamin presents it.
13   Benjamin, Walter, ‘Experience and Poverty’ in Walter Benjamin. Selected Writings: Part 2, 1931-1934. edited by Michael W. Jenning, Howard Eiland & Gary Smith. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2005.  p 734

Baillargeon, Taïka.  'Dark Tourism: spectacle vs barbarism'  On Site review, no. 22 Fall 2009
©Taïka Baillargeon and On Site review

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