2 Method: analyzing reception of environment

This thesis deals with the question of subjectivity, connection, and ownership in increasingly ubiquitous, or disappearing, physical spaces. Specifically I would like to explore the different perceptions of space held by the “resident” and by the “visitor,” analyzing historical perceptions and interactions of these two characters in order to better understand contemporary subjectivities and interrelations between people, objects, and environments. As such, one thread of research is the analysis of the tourist’s consumption of the surrounding environment.

M. Christine Boyer’s 1992 essay, “Cities for Sale: Merchandising History at South Street Seaport” was published as part of series of essays exploring the transformation of America’s cities and public life at the end of the twentieth century. The essay focuses on the “just looking” tourist-consumer culture in a historically distinct, festival marketplace in Manhattan. 

Given that the essay was written around fifteen years ago, it offers a venue for historical analysis in prelude to contemporary, increasingly extreme conditions of tourism and consumption. I would like to examine specifically Boyer’s characterization of the tourist’s purely visual, image-based connection to the environment, in terms of reception and empathy, as well as the implications that this mode of consumption has in altering the nature of public space and interaction.

In examining the South Street Seaport as a “premixed design package,” Boyer must first define the relationship of architecture to image and consumer to that image. She describes the creation of image (or spectacle, when placed in relationship to a spectator) by tracing a history of reproduction. She asserts that by using already-known symbolic codes, simulations reproducing some affect of reality could draw associations between “images and places, resemblances and meaning,” the artificial and the authentic—thus reframing urban realities and taking the place of these realities in the spectator’s mind. The visual reception of these codes then offers a chance to reestablish a base for culture and tradition by association, without containing any actual history. This works because the spectator is here assumed to be an “inattentive viewer” observing the spectacle in passing, and so Boyer arrives at an understanding of the subject in this environment as one who is “just looking.”  In this superficial, visually acquisitive experience of the subject, the attraction offers “pure visibility” and reassurance, the “promise not to burden the spectator with the seriousness of reality.” Her criticism follows that because these spectacles were meant to be quickly scanned rather than analyzed, because “the pleasure of the view suspends critical judgment,” the subject is given a permissiveness to get lost in an idealized image of the past and to ignore completely any existing problems.  This emphasis on visibility allows the subject to be present as a consumer, yet disengaged from any presence in a different common reality—escaping from any experience outside the limits of the spectacle or between “featured” moments.

It seems that for Boyer, the spectator is definitively the tourist, coming to visit this festival marketplace temporarily, looking to enjoy oneself guilt-free, relishing the degree of naïveté offered through a solely optical experience of a place. The author implies that a deeper “look” might reveal some genuine condition of reality to the viewer, but does not elaborate upon alternate means of experiencing this event-place. Boyer claims that the design focus in this environment is on a “theatrical” connection between the architecture of the marketplace and “the city’s historical past,” re-representing the city through precisely constructed views. Attractions appropriate styles of the desired referent in order to create a mood through which this referent is filtered and received.  However, reinforcing the passive role of the subjective consciousness, this theatricality does not extend a relationship from the architecture to the spectator.  Rather, through codes, associated meanings are transferred from context to commodities, and the situation enables tourists to interact only with objects as the uniqueness of place and context are completely cast away. For the tourist, this “mood” further conflates context and commodity, and a relationship to one’s environment exists only through anonymous consumption rather than through specificity.

The tourist-spectator is “the new public of the late twentieth century,” receiving the festival marketplace visually and relating to it through consumption. However, because this environment is not temporary for all those present, there should be another viewpoint revealing a less-strictly-surface experience.  Were Boyer to define more specifically the communities at play in the festival marketplace, she would have to acknowledge another more ritually-visiting subject, perhaps the worker or resident of nearby Manhattan.  She implies the presence of an awareness beyond that of the tourist, stating that these spectacles obscure and replace actual history in compensation for present-day failures. But rather than discuss alternate subjectivities or modes of perception, she implies that by somehow looking more deeply one would catch a glimpse of these problems, whereas one’s awareness of real urban problems may denote a different kind mode of body knowledge and feeling altogether. 

Considering in this case the “resident” rather than the “tourist,” more static populations, presumably with greater the awareness of real urban problems, may have greater the love for simulation. She is perhaps hinting at these more lingering populations when she states that even cities and regions to market themselves with “imageability” as the new selling point. This is also where Boyer offers her strongest call to action, arguing that American urban regions are “disintegrating into unrelated groupings of shopping centers…and housing tracts….” These areas could be seen as in need of an “image” that will negate uprootedness and decomposition, creating place and connection. If architectural manipulation of historical or pop-culture imagery can stir nostalgia and consumption, it should by similar means be able to create unity and ownership.  The question becomes one of creating new images of empowerment, rather than appropriating those of the past that serve only as filters.

In connecting to their surroundings, it is evident that a tourist’s perception is distinct from, and to some degree more liberated than, that of another figure, as it is always based on a represented image that is different than a reality. By looking at different relationships between subject and environment together, it follows that the choreographed interaction between image and subjects could emerge as a dominant factor in the formation and activation of public space.  This image could use its power to distract and attract attention to more than an empty imitation of reality. 

Can tourists realize their power to imbue their scene with whatever values they see fit?  Can non-tourist architecture offer the same opportunities?

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