Emma Smith

By Perry, Colin | Art Monthly, November 2011 | Go to article overview

Emma Smith


Perry, Colin, Art Monthly


During the mid to late 1970s Australian filmmaker Dennis O'Rourke lived in Papua New Guinea, teaching filmmaking skills to local people. A decade later he made Cannibal Tours, 1988, an ethnographic documentary that follows a group of American, German and Italian eco-tourists as they visit a village inhabited by people whose immediate ancestors were headhunters. The interest for the tourists is clearly prurient and exoticising--they fondle artefacts carved for the tourist trade, pay to take photographs inside sacred shrines and refer to the locals as 'primitives'. Speaking in their own language, the villagers describe how they hate being filmed, but need the tourists' money to be able to buy provisions from the large stores in the local town. The film is important for British artist Emma Smith, whose work explores questions of social practice and place. As artist-in-residence at Grizedale Arts in the Lake District, Smith chose to explore the impact of the massive influx of tourists on the region, many of whom come for stag and hen parties or adventure holidays--climbing, white-water rafting etc. Such models of tourism are clearly often at odds with both local needs and the environment. Even tourists of a more conscientious sort, and the established models of eco-tourism they enjoy, can be of dubious benefit to locals. Urbanite volunteers who lay hedges, build stone walls or fix fells surely believe they are doing some good; but it is also clear that a single professional hedge-layer or mason might do a quicker and better job than entire groups of eco-tourists (and, if paid for their jobs properly, would contribute to the local economy). The problems of tourism are, in effect, wider than the industry, suggesting that our desire for consumption of other cultures is a 'cannibalism' of another kind.

Smith argues that what is needed is a truly reciprocal relationship in which visitors can offer something to locals that they are actually skilled at, in return for other skills and experiences. Earlier this year, Smith set up a temporary School for Tourists, which was intended to kick-start such a process. Staged in Coniston Hall--a building founded by John Ruskin for the purpose of promoting the arts, education and social cohesion--the school was a six-day event that featured talks by professor John Urry (a British sociologist specialising in tourism and issues of transport and oil consumption), Owen Jones (a local basket-maker) and artist Karen Guthrie, a ceilidh and a screening of Cannibal Tours. Each year, Smith tells me, the numerical equivalent of the population of Tehran arrives in the Lake District: around 12 million visitors, a massive migratory population. While this migration undoubtedly brings many benefits, Smith notes that there is often a local dissatisfaction with certain effects of tourism. This is partially due to the number of people involved, the relegation of locals to service providers and the effects of unequal wealth (houses in the area can be too expensive for locals). An example of this tension appears in the manner in which the original 1930s Country Code, which asserted the visitor's duty to 'respect [the countryside's] life and work', has been replaced by an emphasis on the visitor's material comforts--people are now warned to 'check weather forecasts' and be wary of the 'unpredictable' behaviour of farm animals. It appears that the countryside has been relegated to a function of the services and entertainment industry--which, of course, is indicative of a consumerist country. It is precisely this that Smith seeks to work against in order to find areas of agency for locals as well as for tourists. During her Grizedale residency, for example, Smith created Tourist Tout, 2010, in which she put herself in the position of a service-provider, offering to help visitors to a garden open day to resolve 'problems of any kind'. The service, of course, is tongue-in-cheek; she cannot possibly solve all the visitors' problems. …

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