Laura-Jade Klée's curation and reflections @LauraJadeKlee
Counter-Tourism: The Handbook, Crab Man (Phil Smith), Triarchy Press, 2012
Adamant that “beauty and heritage are far too important to be left to the heritage industry,” Crab Man (the books side-scuttling tour guide) sets about reinventing “heritage” through stripping the industry of its claim to neutrality and creating a new script that encourages subjectivity, controversy, and exploration. Crab Man does not allow the reader to interpret the book as: an academic essay on tourism, a political manifesto, or a simple handbook containing a clear chronology of definitive answers; instead he constantly shifts tone and subverts conventions. Sometimes Crab Man speaks with humour, sometimes anger, and even at times arousal, but he constantly inventive, inquisitive and inspiring.
To clarify, Crab Man is not against heritage; he is against how the tourist industry presents a dull and limited view of heritage through adhering to a standardised script. The result is that visitors become passive like emotionless zombies and Crab Man warns “if the past eats your brain, your vacant smile will be taken for customer satisfaction.” His less than affectionate term for heritage site management “morticians,” alludes to heritage museums as tombs, isolated from human activity, the artefact’s place of origin, and the engaging discourse heritage deserves. Instead we are encouraged to “save yourself the entrance fee,” particularly since he believes the main reason for heritage museum attendance is “oppressive obligation.”
Crab Man’s belief is that heritage is everywhere and it needs to be kept alive, and the handbook provides a list of suggestions that promotes rediscovery, subjectivity and imagination in heritage appreciation. Tactics vary between, performance, story-telling, walking, or very ambitious interventions. The book itself loosely shares some similarities with a tourist handbook- tourism is often about escapism from the everyday and Counter-Tourism encourages readers to depart from their everyday script in order to see things in new and exciting ways. Crab Man presents the world through a form of psychogeography he has named ‘Mythogeography’, which is defined by “walking and journeying. Setting ourselves in motion through a world of images we become human movie cameras. By the focuses and angles of trajectory we choose, we make an interpretation of our world” (lifted from Mytho Geography Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/mythogeography). Likewise, Counter-Tourism relies upon readers collaborating and expressing their personal viewpoint of a site, since heritage belongs to us all and we should all take responsibility for it. Throughout, counter-tourists are encouraged to contribute to http://www.countertourism.net or the Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/countertourism which also makes for an interesting read.
The title Counter-Tourism can easily be misread as counter-terrorism and the handbook comprises of a list of “tactics” which parallels Crab Man’s mission with political and military strategies. Throughout the book there is a strong sense of being on a mission and the reader is constantly invited to role play being a spy, detective, space explorer or bomb disposal man. At times Crab Man’s frustration towards heritage tourism manifests itself as iconoclaslic; for example, he urges readers to climb ruins, fantasise the collapse of iconic sites, or consider what instinctive response to the environment would be an arrestable offence . These comments dare us to imagine the death of authority surrounding designated heritage sites. The book never loses its sense of seriousness; Counter-tourism is often described as a pilgrimage without destination, and tourists are part of a “war of meaning and memory.” The tactics are to form self-aware tourists who ask “What constitutes as a heritage site?” “Who decides what is ‘heritage’ and why?” Their mission: to uncover hidden heritages or omitted stories, because “[behind] locked gates marked PRIVATE there is a multitude of wonders, absurdities and outrages.” To those who visit heritage sites to learn about history, this is a good reminder that the presentation of the past is always ideological and there is no single objective viewpoint.
Whilst always working towards a serious cause, the book is also filled with humour, absurdities and affection. Crab Man is likeable and entertaining, and I particularly enjoy his research into the various origins of the Hokey Cokey which results in the observation “settling on which (if any) of these is true, is probably far less interesting than considering why priestly ritual, drug-fuelled mining, and ice-cream coexists in such close relations.” The photographs are also fun whilst thought-provoking and my favourite image is the unusual pub sign for The Vulcan Arms. The humour and playfulness enhances the seriousness of Crab Man’s message. The book is not just a rant about the tourist industry- the tactics inspire and give access to the special and unique world of Counter-Tourism.
Finally, it would not be possible to write a review without experimenting with the tactics of Counter-Tourism. It is not the first time I have sought inspiration from Crab Man; in a mind-map session with Sidelong collaborator Jo Dacombe, we shared thoughts on ‘A Sardine Street Box of Tricks’ by Crab Man and Signpost (Phil Smith and Simon Persighetti). Through producing this counter-tourist map I aimed to subvert a common ingredient of the heritage industry script- a brochure map. By adding notes to the script it has retained the aesthetic of generic tourist map but this time it has an added personal tone. The map is my history and heritage and it is a reminder that I see the world uniquely because of my journey of experiences. Instead of communicating an easily understood theme or neat chronology, my map is comprised of a mystifying logic only I understand. It enforces that heritage exist everywhere and it is layered, complex, and made from human interactions. My Counter-Tourism map may not be skilled high-art, but it is part of a bigger collaborative picture of exploring and questioning heritage and its significance.
To anyone considering reading this book, I highly recommend it. Every page is a surprise, and each tactic has the potential to uncover a multitude of discoveries about heritage. It does not dictate hard facts and argue opinion, so much as it gives inventive suggestions of seeing which reveals Crab Man’s own viewpoint. Although please be warned- you may never be able to experience a heritage site in the same way again.