Last week on Canal Street I saw a Chinese woman get arrested for selling knock-off designer handbags. Looking on vacantly with wide-eyed shock and fright, she was handcuffed and thrown into the back of a police cruiser. This woman, clearly a new immigrant from China, is part of a large, complex knock-off luxury goods system in the Chinatown/Soho area that caters primarily to American and European tourists.
The next day, business continued unimpeded as if the arrest ever happened; that woman lost and potentially forgotten in the system. Further north on Grand Street, I frequently pass Spanish and French tourists carrying multiple bags from the myriad retail chains on Broadway back to their hotel rooms. Tourism and shopping are close cousins, contemporary activities basic to middle class life across the world.
The art world has awkwardly tried to tailgate on this actuality, chasing around tourist money with art fairs and biennals in every corner of the world. Dealers, artists, curators, critics and collectors flock to Miami this time every year hoping that living it up next to the beach might propel art sales and provide a career boost. Museums also feel compelled to lure tourist audiences with exhibitions that sometimes feel like decorative installations in shopping malls or amusement parks. Check out the latest from the Guggenheim and New Museum.
Museums are like stray cats after thanksgiving, tearing apart any trash bag at night to find the leftover carcass of a bland-tasting bird. If a little mouse runs by, they’ll forget about the ravaged turkey and try to chase that down instead.
Tourists run this town during this late part of summer. The city overexposed under their gaze. The whole world is a camera. The whole world is rotten. Susan Sontag was right when she inferred that tourism didn’t really exist until photography was made portable. “As photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure,” she writes in On Photography, 1977.
Photography has been freed from the chains of glass, metal, copper, silver, and paper. Images have been freed from industrialization, and its production happens out of sight. Hidden like manufacturing is to the American consumer. The loss of manufacturing in the United States has eroded our overall sense of craftsmanship. America has thus become a nation full of quality controllers, inspecting products fresh off the boat. We will become machines, but not the type that Warhol wished upon everyone. Instead of machines of production, we are becoming machines of inspection.
A kind of machine that only looks for problems. Like the gun with a conscience from Nas’ I Gave You Power, 1996: “He squeezed harder / I didn’t budge, sick of the blood / Sick of the thugs, sick of the wrath of the / next man’s grudge”. The camera is like a gun. Antonioni’s Blow Up, 1966, talked about this. We have been so used to seeing through a camera that we’re numb to its power. We’ve become the camera and have digested its mechanisms into our own. Now we wait for the sun to move into perfect position, for the bus to move out of the way, and hope our subject doesn’t blink.