'The Everyday Gaze of the Sightseer' is published in 'Territorial Invasions of the Public and Private'
ed. Anke Bangma, Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam, 2003

 

The Everyday Gaze of the Sightseer
(On Vacation in Berlin, Prague, Budapest and Vienna)

 

The youth hostel in Berlin is called ‘Sunflower’. M. and I are sitting in the common room. Its walls are painted yellow. We read pamphlets and brochures about Berlin. Every now and again, little groups of youngsters come trickling in. They ask for their room key or the best place to go in the evening, and then they disappear upstairs.
There is a small group of young men sitting next to us. I hear one of them say: ‘Dresden’s the place to be. Dresden is like Berlin was five years ago.’ There are two train timetables pinned on the notice board: to Amsterdam and to Prague. There is a folder about a youth hostel in Rome. The folder concludes with the words: ‘And if you are lost, please give us a call and we will tell you where you are.’

‘The nineteenth-century (and by extension also the twentieth-century) city stopped being a stage for social interaction and instead became a tableau for and of silent onlookers.’1 The city stroller no longer had to be alone, and was equally no longer obliged to enter into an intercourse with others. Walter Benjamin studied this role in the persona of the flâneur — the flâneur whose appreciation of the urban environment was characterized by a mixture of distance and familiarity, of proximity and distance. The intimacy with the sameness makes it possible for the flâneur to notice peculiarities: the flâneur peruses rather than looks. In Rene Boomkens’ view, Benjamin heralded in a philosophy of the modern, urban experience in this way of seeing, this absent-minded manner of observation.2
The flâneur is an habitué of the city; the sightseer is a visitor. The role of the flâneur is about his observation of the city being part of his daily life.
Sightseers in a city exchange their own daily life for the role of the tourist: a public act whereby the sightseer continuously balances between posing and looking. The tourist flamboyantly appropriates the game of the flâneur — seeing and being seen. This theatrical performance on the public urban stage is fed by the idea of the sightseer participating in the day-to-day life in the city that he is visiting. Or, as the sociologist Dean Maccawell expressed it, ‘Touristic consciousness is motivated by its desire for authentic experiences.’3
This desire implies that a tourist is able to distinguish between staged and authentic experiences. But in an era when representations determine the urban perception of the sightseer to such a large extent, and when the daily urban life has been elevated to the status of a touristic attraction, this seems to be a well-nigh impossible task.

M. and I visit the Potzdammer Platz and then we walk towards the Brandenburger Tor. In front of the Brandenburger Tor there is an audio installation where people can listen to radio fragments at the push of a button; original radio fragments with commentaries on the Wall’s first stone and its eventual fall, plus all the historical events in the interim. Eventually it becomes a commentary on the spectacle that can be seen now: the Brandenburger Tor wrapped in an enormous backdrop. This scenery shows monuments from other world cities. Figured at the top there is an advertising slogan: Die Welt ruckt näher. Tourists walk past in the foreground. A boy with sunglasses and short trousers passes by and looks into the lens cursorily. A little further on there is a child tugging at the sleeve of his father, who is busy filming the scene.

Every sightseer who visits a metropolis has already seen representations of it. In his desire to participate in the city’s everyday life, the sightseer will identify himself with a particular posture, an image of a city that is propagated in a film, a book or an historical event. Film especially has played an important part in our understanding and perception of the metropolis due to their parallel development. Traditionally a film portrays the visitor to the metropolis in a narrative progression: the visitor is swallowed up in the masses and is eventually spat out on the other side as a different personality, a character with a different identity, a fully-fledged city-dweller.
The city as a refuge, as the counterpart to the countryside, is a modernistic notion. In his study, City Images in Postmodern Urban Fiction and Collective Memory, Bart Keunen contends that these days ‘the arrival in the city’ has lost its potency in film and literature. ‘The main reason for this decline is most likely the universalizing of the urban condition as a result of urban sprawl. Urban structures are to be found and canonized city icons are copied or consumed in the most remote corners of the Western world.’4

Today, the image of the city and the characters who visit it is created by media that are in fact lacking in any narrative sense, and thus present a fragmented, randomized impression. Pop stars appear in video clips against a backdrop of cities that fly past and in computer games the player roams from one level to the next - the surroundings change but the role of the characters remains the same. The role of the visitor is to be someone passing through, en passant, and the journey consists of movement between environments that do not essentially differ from one another.

It is already nighttime when we arrive in Prague. On the off chance, we ring at the doorbells of hotels, but they are all full. M. has a map of Prague but all we do is walk around in circles — we keep ending up back in a square where youngsters are sitting on the ground as if they are at a festival. But there is no festival.
Over the following days we also keep ending up at that square. It is populated by tourists and patient signposts — people holding up a board in the air with texts like: ‘Torture Museum 200 meters to the right’. Or: ‘Vivaldi - The Four Seasons. This Sunday.’ An Arabic-looking youngster holds up a board that declares: ‘Today: The best of world musicals.’ He supports himself on his left leg, his right leg crossed in front nonchalantly. A policeman stands writing a ticket alongside him, but it is not clear for whom it is intended. In the background there are four tourists sitting in a row on the curbside.

The perception of the flâneur is characterized by noting peculiarities in the midst of the uniformity. With respect to this essential difference between the perception of the flâneur and the perception of the sightseer, Trui Vetters wrote: ‘The voyeur’s city can never be anything but a fiction, both because of its unwillingness to recognize particularities and because of its inability to see those who live "below the thresholds at which visibility begins".'5
De Certeau calls the sightseer a voyeur, and thus highlights the ambiguity of the act of looking. Looking at scenes in the city is inextricably linked with ignoring anomalies, incidents and particularities. In one respect as a discretion — one respects other people’s anonymity - and, in another respect, because there are quite simply too many impressions to take them all in. The blasé attitude was born of this bearing, a code of behaviour that has become a natural pose for the city dweller. The ineptitude in assuming this pose means that the sightseer constantly sticks out like a sore thumb in the cityscape. It takes a little time to acquire a casual familiarity with the physical surroundings — to get off the train at the right metro station without looking up.

Apart from the escalators in Budapest’s metro stations being interminably long, they also spin at a speed that seems out of control. At the top of the escalator, M. and I adjust our step, but we are not allowed much time — behind us there are already passengers who are ready to shove us down into the depths. On the escalator we spend a considerable time looking at the passers-by coming up the escalator on the other side.
After a few days I purchased the book Budapest, A Critical Guide by András Török. The author draws the reader’s attention to bookshops that nobody will ever find, and warns which restaurants are listed in the Lonely Planet guide. In the chapter ‘Staring at others and getting away with it’, metro stations are recommended as the best place to look at passers-by coming from the other direction on the escalators: the lower middle-class predominates in the Kossuth Lajos Tér metro station; it is primarily the working class that passes through Lehel Tér station; and the escalators of Blaha Luzja Tér are best for observing an ideal mix.

Where tourist highlights deliberately appeal to a familiar image of a city, there are also touristic presentations that brush close to a kind of authentic, ‘social realistic’ experience. Critical travel guides make references to undiscovered restaurants with morose waiters, and carefully planned city tours that take in places inaccessible even to the city’s residents — guided tours of the city during which drug addicts explain their existence, or with exotic snacks served by immigrant families.
The critical sightseer is served up an experience of the city that the city’s habitués usually disregard. That is indeed a characteristic of all urban tourist attractions, but the difference is that this so-called critical presentation of the city claims to offer the perspective of a city-dweller. It suggests that the sightseer is playing the part of an expert city ‘insider’.
But this form of presentation offers nothing more than a perspective of the city that the regard of the city’s own resident has merely glanced past, perceived out of the corner of the eye. The observation of the city-dweller is trained to attribute no meaning to the images that flash past his field of view, attempting to see them as nothing more than a succession of incidental happenings.
The politically correct city of the sightseer, on the other hand, is transformed into an anecdotal narrative; the sightseer learns the history of a family restaurant and listens to the life stories of all manner of city characters. They are tales that are accompanied by a veiled moral, i.e. that the sightseer does indeed attach a significance to the invisible daily life just by looking at it or listening to it. Urban life is presented as a story in which one participates by looking at it and listening to it. Dan MacCannell refers to this invisible life in the city as the ‘backside’; a reconstruction that is just as carefully staged for the gaze of the sightseer as the ‘frontside’: ‘The idea is that a false back is more insidious and dangerous than a false front, or an inauthentic demystification of social life is not merely a lie but a superlie, the kind that drips with sincerity.’ 6

On our last day in Budapest we don’t know what we should do any more. We saunter through the city with our backpacks. The heat has mollified us. Hours before the train departs we are already sitting on the platform. A backpacker there tells a story about how she briefly alighted from the night train between Bucharest and Budapest to get something to eat, and how the train then left without her. Since then she has not seen her friend or her rucsac. In the middle of the concourse in front of the platforms there is a man without any legs sitting on the ground. The man looks up and begs passers-by for money. A policeman stands talking down at him for a while. The man without legs doesn’t pay the least bit of attention to the officer.

The focus of the sightseer’s gaze is identification. The sightseer strives for the temporary convergence of the physical urban environment and his perspective, from which he has already experienced a representation of the city. Now that those images of the city are increasingly defined by indiscriminate representations in video clips or computer games, the sightseer will see the city as a stage set, to an even greater extent, and make the lack of spectacle and interaction more tangible: it is the touristic economy that imbues the city with these characteristics, thus satisfying the demands of the sightseer.
The gaze of the politically correct sightseer is drawn to the remarkable, just like that of the city dweller. But the sightseer sees the abnormalities without acknowledging the similarities. Or rather: the similarities are presented as the conspicuous, as a narrative. The critical sightseer sees the homogeneity — the vagrant that the city dweller encounters every morning, the restaurant waiter who is always miserable — as a one-off, while the similarities in the city are in fact all about repetition, inurement. But for the politically correct sightseer the city is about the interruption of repetition, one is visiting — the sightseer is temporarily liberated from his own daily environment. On returning home, the sightseer is once again reminded of the inability to experience one’s own day-to-day surroundings from a visitor’s perspective.

At the station in Vienna a youngster with a small rucsac comes up to talk to us. He tries to arouse our interest for a stay in a youth hostel. Everything is fine with us. The three of us leave the station concourse and head towards the youth hostel on foot.
This guy has already done this a great many times. He tells us that he is from Poland and that the youth hostel is not very far. He asks perfunctorily where we come from. He is somewhat surprised that we are visiting Vienna. When we have to wait at a pedestrian crossing he apologizes for the traffic lights not turning green more quickly. Then he tells us how boring Vienna is. And that we shouldn’t be in Vienna, but in Krakow. Krakow is the ‘in’ place.

 

  1. Sven Lütticken, ‘The Invisible Work of Art’ in The Urban Condition: Space, Community and Self in the Contemporary Metropolis, ed. Ghent Urban Studies Team - GUST (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 1999), p. 311
  2. Rene Boomkens, Een drempelwereld, moderne ervaring en stedelijke openbaarheid (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 1998), p.115.
  3. Dean MacCannell, The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class (New York: Shocken Books, 1973), p.101.
  4. Bart Keunen, ‘The Decline of the City as Modernist Symbol: City Images in Postmodern Urban Fiction and Collective Memory’ in The Urban Condition, ed. GUST (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 1999), p. 359.
  5. Trui Vetters, ‘"Night on Earth": Urban Practices and the Blindness of Metatheory’ in The Urban Condition, ed. GUST (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 1999), p. 346. Vetters quoted from: Michel de Certeau, The Practices of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Randall (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998), p. 92-93.
  6. Dean MacCannell, p. 102-103.


    Robin van 't Haar, 2002

    translation: Andrew May
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