Place-Based Commodification: The erroneous notion of authenticity as praxis in rural tourism
When Eilish searched the geotag for Fogo Island, lying on her couch in St. John’s, it was an act of desperation. Her whole thesis would collapse if she couldn’t find the right person to interview. The right person had a narrow window. The narrow window would frame someone young, well educated—really well educated—and preferably someone involved in the arts. Someone like her. She wasn’t sure how to describe who she was looking for but she knew who she was picturing.
The idea for the thesis had engulfed her likea sun flare, blocking everything else from view. She had been on a bus tour of Ireland after her first semester in grad school—a trip that was meant to clear her head so she could figure out what the hell she was going to do like what could she actually do with this masters—standing on a headland looking over the village at Cahersiveen. Something so satisfying in the quilted squares of green below, the sun sprinkling glitter over the water. Tour busses lined along the rock walls next to the pub. So familiar. And yet.
Eilish had arranged herself in a stance, hands on the hips of her slick yellow rain jacket, hair blowing wild around her. She glanced around to see if anyone from her tour group was handy that could take her picture like this, right here. The caption was already forming in her head. This was the spot my thesis came to me. No. Wait. Gazing out over the Atlantic from a different angle, I got the perspective I needed.
She had been watching the tourist dollars pour from fanny packs into the tills of local shops with a hunger. Coffee shops, pubs, horse and carriage rides. The infrastructure of it. Genius. And the tourists were delighted. It’s just like olden times! She wondered if they were conscious of their use of the word olden. She fingered her notebook. Was it too soon to start. She could email her supervisor if she could just find some wifi.
Scrolling through the photos in the Fogo geotag months later, she began to wonder if she had jumped too quickly. Her supervisor had gushed at the idea, drooling methodologies. Just the type of thing, he said. What Newfoundland needs. A local scholar. Important work.
Back in Cahersiveen it had felt like a beam of light had risen to her from the ocean’s refractions. The whole idea had come at once, seeming already so complete.
The thing that made her open Lance’s photo initially was the way it stood out from all the others. It was the contrast of the well-framed, artsy shot of the coffee mug on the white background. Against the poorly lit, shaky phone photos of skidoos and jiggs. The caption: Locally roasted from Flat Earth Coffee Co. #supportlocal #explorenl @fogoislandarts.His username: @LProwse_RuralArts. She opened his profile. Artist and Curator living on #FogoIsland.
Eilish nearly dropped her phone on her face. Her thumbs went wild, typing a quick message. Came across your work. So engaging. Provoking. Important. Rural sustainability. Invigorating. I was wondering. My thesis. She tapped the spelling errors to correct them and sent the message, returning to his profile to see what type of art he made. There were several shots of paint brushes and messy paint palettes, but no actual works that she could see. Huh. She opened the link to his website. There was a striking photo of him standing beside one of the studios she had seen in tourism ads. Sharp angles, vivid seas. His age was difficult to discern, and he wore quirky glasses and a serious expression. Neatly trimmed facial hair. One of those knit hats you see people with after they leave Fogo. Must be from the craft guild. She’d read about that.
Social enterprise, it said. Toronto, it said. How perfect, she thought.
By the time she closed the website he had replied to her message. So thrilled, he said. Facilitating conversations, he said. Community-building. Outreach. Place. (What luck, she thought.) I’ll be in St. John’s next week for a conference. Coffee?
When she descended from the rocky outcrop in Cahersiveen, she had marched straight into the pub. The murky darkness had been disorienting after the dazzling light, but she found her way to the bar and ordered a glass of whiskey, Writer’s Tears.
The woman at the bar slid it over and moved away.
For good luck, Eilish called after her and the woman looked, nodded, carried on, busy with something.
No, it’s for good luck for writing, see.
Plenty of tears to come then. The woman had turned just her head back to Eilish so she was still mostly turned away.
No, see I’m going to start my thesis. Eilish took a gulp of whiskey. Spluttered.
Oh right on. Well good luck to you then.
I’m going to write about tourism! Rural revitalization!
The woman turned all the way back. Are you now. Shocking, isn’t it. Half the stuff people go on about. No idea where they even get it, like. My kids seem to know the tourism ads better than their own history.
Where I come from, Eilish said loudly. That’s what we need. Rural! Tourism! All the potential. You have it figured out here. So great.
The woman stopped. Her whole body paused asplit second, reconfigured. Took on a different posture.
Oh, she said. Well. Back to work then. Sláinte.
Could you spell that for me, Eilish yelled ather back.
Lance Prowse billowed into the Water Street coffee shop like a hand-knit circle scarf, gathering the atmosphere back into himself. He crossed his legs comfortably when he sat down, said, How are you getting on, Eilish. He pronounced each word fully, every syllable. Eilish loved that. She wanted to make a note about this. Dynamic culture. Accents fade, but we nod to the old colloquial. Or something. She wasn’t sure what it meant yet, but it certainly meant something. He looked pleased with himself, like he could see her working this out.
What a traditional name, he said. He ordered an espresso.
So serendipitous, your being in town, she said. She had ordered Tetley, was now eyeing his espresso. Could have used the caffeine.
I’m always around. I can really work from anywhere, he said, leaning in. I work remotely, see. They both gave a tiny noise like a single syllable laugh.
So tell me about the work you do, she said. I mean what brings you here.
Oh, the Toronto art world. So rigid, he said. No authenticity.
She said, Could you elaborate. On that notion. She looked at his espresso again.
He said, Fogo has a magic quality to it. Visceral. Place.
Magic, she said.
Like this place has something about it that is so pure, so untouched. And the people. So much joy with so little. The first time I saw it I said I want to bottle that feeling and sell it.
Wow, she said. That’s perfect.
Eilish had a meeting set up with her supervisor by the time she arrived in Dublin for her flight. Would have been sooner if she could get any damn wifi in this country. After the bus had pulled back out of Cahersiveen, continued on its winding route of the Ring of Kerry, she had started firing questions at the bus driver. Scooched up the aisle to squeeze into the seat behind him.
What a magnificent castle, she’d said as they drove past a ruined structure. What amazing heritage buildings you have here.
The bus driver watched the road. That’s a Big House, he said. Ascendency class.
Could you tell me, does this style of architecture make you feel connected to the Place?
The bus driver looked at her in the mirror abovethe windshield so long Eilish wasn’t sure how he didn’t hit the cars squeezingpast on the narrow road.
Yes, her supervisor said. Fogo! Excellent. And it looks good for us. To have someone from Newfoundland doing this research. Perfect. I’ll put you in touch. Grants. Fellowships. It’ll look great.
Eilish said about roughing it. About fieldwork. Nervous laugh. He said, Oh don’t worry. You don’t actually have to go there. Eilish said, thank god.
He said, you should really consider going away for your PhD. You know. Nothing for you here.
She perched on the hard plastic chair in the university built in the Smallwood years, in the newly Canadian province years. The years when the ownership of this island had been passed around a lot. The years of if none of us voted for this then who did. The years of infrastructure, still visible in the sixties architecture. Buildings that hadn’t been updated since.
She scribbled a word on the corner of her notebook. Note to self. Context.
Eilish said, Oh good, don’t have to go there. But the words felt a little empty.
Getting Lance to talk was easy. She found that all she really had to do was throw out one of his buzzwords, and he would light right up, babbling on about the placemaking work he was doing. It was switching supervisors that was the tricky part.
Months later, sitting at a kitchen table in Joe Batt’s Arm on Fogo Island, Eilish leaned forward in her seat.
It started out they just had us giving tours, the old woman said. Crossing and re-crossing her arms. It started out we were just telling stories. You know.
When you say it started out, Eilish said. Made a note of the time on her recorder.
Well. After a while they were telling us which stories to tell.