Staged authenticity in Brazil

The following concept of “staged authenticity” comes from some tourism studies research I’ve been doing and which is something I encounter in my experiences living in Brazil (especially in Rio). So what is staged authenticity?

“Staged authenticity is when a host community may take something, whether it would be a person, place or thing, a recreate it into something that reflects the traditional values and customs of the people. This could include performances, feasts or even just everyday life.”

This really falls under the category of cultural tourism, though I prefer the term “anthropological tourism” (though, technically, that term refers to the anthropology of tourism, I use it to refer to having experiences that reflect reality of the place being visited.) Part of the article you’ll be reading below reminded me of a concept in art called the objet trouvé, or found object, commonly called “readymades” in English. “Recent critical theory, however, would argue that the mere designation and relocation of any object, readymades included, constitutes a modification of the object because it changes our perception of its utility, its lifespan, or its status.”

The placement of an everyday object from where it might be found naturally to a museum or gallery invites contemplation and reflection. Though in terms of tourism, I think the result is the opposite. The staging of an event takes away from its importance (but I suppose only if the tourist realizes its inauthenticity) and invites passive consumption. Even when a tourist gets a “backstage pass”, there needs to be context or else passive consumption will also occur.

The Christ statue or Pão de Açúcar would not be staged authenticity, by the way. What would be is seeing capoeiristas performing, singing and playing with tamborines on the street corner in Ipanema. The example of the fishing boats below is perfect, especially for anyone who has been to Ponta Negra in Natal. Even if you think of the trendy seaside town of Trancoso in Bahia, it gives the well-to-do the sense they are experiencing a simpler way of life.

On to the article…

“Postmodern tourists revel in constructed experiences from computer assisted virtual travel to entire cities made to resemble theme parks, such as Las Vegas. Classically, tourists were concerned about the truth of their experiences: this is the exact place where the Magna Carta was signed, this is the true Crown of Thorns, this is unspoiled nature, and so on. The issue of authenticity inhabits the tourist experience. One finds melancholic or joyful denials of the possibility of authentic experience on the part of postmodernists, or a continued striving for the authentic on the part of ecotourists and others who refuses to give up the quest for the real, the true, the authentic.

Researchers abandon all efforts to provide expert philosophical or other judgement based on external criteria regarding what is or is not authentic. In the place of absolute and external criteria of authenticity, a social constructivist approach is proposed. Since almost every place that tourists visit provides a local answer to the question of authenticity, an anthropology of actual practices of staging authenticity can be substituted for absolutist determination of what is authentic and what is not.

Even those attractions that might qualify as authentic according to an external criterion (like Leonardo’s Last Supper or the Grand Canyon) depend upon stagecraft for their presentation: they are marked off from their surroundings, protectively separated from their viewers, framed, provided with special lighting and landscaping, and explained by guides. The presentation apparatus of tourism always intervenes between the tourist and the attraction. The apparent authenticity of any attraction is socially constructed, whether or not it is real. Even those tourists who seek authentic or real experiences mainly witness the staging apparatus. The industry that grew around the desire for direct experience of real other peoples, places and things blocks the possibility of an authentic experience in its drive to supply such experiences: in the place of an authentic native ritual is found a performance of an ‘authentic native ritual’ for tourists. What the tourists see, even under conditions where the greatest care has been taken to preserve the authenticity of an attraction, is still the touristic version of the natural, historical or ethnological original.

Thus artificially constructed postmodern tourism environments (such as the New York, New York and Paris Experience hotels in Las Vegas) are a logical outgrowth of the original tourist desire for authenticity and the staging of authentic experiences that occurred in the classical phase of the development of global tourism until about 1975. Most of the original attractions are now entirely superseded by their staging apparatus and/or their artificial reconstructions and simulations. Actually, there is a progression of increasing apparent authenticity in the presentation, or staging of attractions. The first stage is simply setting up a distinction between ordinary everyday occurrences and something that is worthy of a touristic visit, the marking of an attraction that separates it from its context. Already, the experience is framed as much by the institutions of tourism as by the desire of the tourist. On site, the tourist will find aesthetic cues suggesting what kind of experience one is supposed to be having: solemn and uplifting, or fun, or edifying. In its most developed forms, attractions are designed to totalise the tourists’ experience, such as to immerse them in the everyday life of a reconstructed sixteenth-century village where they can engage in dialogue with living enactors. Alternatively, attractions may provide the tourists with privileged but highly controlled access ‘behind the scenes’, to the rooms where actual executions took place, or a famous person was born.

A prevalent form of staged authenticity is the ‘work display’, which includes factory tours, historical enactments of the everyday work activities of pilgrims or museum reconstructions of outmoded manufacturing techniques, to name only a few. There is a common trajectory to the development of former sites of work into destinations. First, a place of work becomes a display for tourists, like a beach where small fishing boats were hauled out, nets repaired, today’s successes and failures discussed and tomorrow’s activities planned. The entire scene is susceptible to becoming an object of touristic consumption, to be taken in as an example of the ‘picturesque’. As soon as development for tourism begins, it is no longer necessary for fishing or related activities to continue, so long as some of the boats, nets and fishermen remain photogeni-cally arrayed as a reminder of their former purpose. Eventually, the picturesque elements are selectively integrated into the decor of beach bars and discos which retain a ‘traditional fishing village’ theme. The staging of authentic tradition appeals to tourists who feel a need to be reminded of the existence of simpler forms of work while they are on vacation, or they may need to have hard work made to appear pretty and leisurely to assuage their guilt. Thus, a place of work is made into a place of leisure for tourists. The nature of the actual work that occurs in the village has changed. The fishermen, or their children, are now integrated into the global economy as service workers for tourists. The actual work that is taking place is masked by the work display and the staging of authentic traditions for touristic consumption. The repetition of this scenario places staged authenticity on the cutting edge of the global transformation of traditional economies for tourism.

The distinction between a pseudo-attraction and a real one is unsustainable. So-called real attractions are subject to the same staging requirements as pseudo-attractions, and some places, such as Las Vegas, come to be so much associated with tacky glitter for tourists that fakery becomes ‘the real’ of the place. European tourists to the United States expect to see impersonal cityscapes, barren superhighways, litter, street crime, fast food chains, theme parks, trailer parks and Las Vegas-style show business glitz. They would be disappointed if they did not see such things, because for Europeans these ‘tacky’ and ‘pseudo’ attractions are what is most authentically American.

Since 1980, tourism researchers have mainly turned away from questions of presentation and staging of attractions. Instead, they have focused on psychological questions of whether tourists are motivated by a desire for authentic experience, or are just as happy with touristic shows which they know are staged for their entertainment. Theoretical developments in other fields, especially the emergence of postmodern theory and its concern for the simulacrum and hyperreality, have absorbed debates about real versus fake that started in tourism studies.” – Source


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