In the age of Instagram, travel has become the pursuit not of a singular experience—but the same point of view.
“We have a fairly open itinerary still. We’re going to Pujol and some museums (Frida Kahlo & LuisBarragán House) and Teotihuacan for the day but haven’t really booked anything else in advance. I’m sure you get these kinds of emails all the time, haha. Any insider tips to share? Any advice at all would be super helpful!”
This is always how it starts. Since relocating to Mexico City in 2015, the above email is one I receive nearly twice a week, depending on the time of year. So frequently does the question arrive from friends, acquaintances, friends of friends of friends, that I have a canned response ready on hand to copy and paste into Gmail. What’s inside that email is a venerable list of familiar, yet unknown places in upscale, or gentrifying neighborhoods. The kind of areas that fuse the warm security of the familiar with palatable portions of the exotic. For these visitors who are generally upwardly mobile, well informed, and eager to be removed from their well-worn social tracks, this locale represents the newest genus must-see tourism.
This email has a subject line. It is always “recommendations for Mexico City.” They come by the dozens since The New York Times named Mexico City the “Number One location to travel to in 2016 and will likely increase now that Wallpaper* Magazine has decreed it the “Best City in the World” for 2018. As I write this during Art Week, a global cache of artists, gallerists, and fashionable hangers on have descended on the city, and I’m struck by the new insularity of the travel I’m frequently witnessing. It’s travel free from the anxiety of the unknown, or the alienating, as far away from the possibility of being humbled in a foreign land, in front of foreign eyes, as one is from home itself. Collectively, we have more unfettered access to information about our destinations, travel arrangements, and accommodations than any foreign body at any point in history, yet, through the lens of social media, amongst the shifting frames of Instagram, it appears that this overwhelming preponderance of information is pushing everyone to travel by the same logic, in a single-minded pursuit of the same experiences.
“The purpose of travel,” notes Sebastian Felip in his book Moving Beyond Subjective Well-Being: A Tourism Critique, “is connected with building social relationships, opportunities to learn and grow, and commitment. It gives us the chance to be truly engaged in an activity, to develop new skills and to discover new cultures. It brings us closer to ourselves and others.” And yet, what I have observed time and time again over the last two years in my aimless walks across the city, in emails from associates, while gazing at the omnipresent explore feed of my Instagram account is that the commitment to learn and grow abroad has given way to the compulsive urge for the familiar. The odds are against those looking for engagement with anything beyond the temporality of social media interactions thanks to the prevalence of app culture. It’s nearly compulsory, the ease with which one can seek out avocado toast on gluten-free bread, or freshly roasted, single-origin coffee. You certainly won’t have to ask where it is. One can Uber, frictionlessly, from iconic, and highly-Instagrammable architecture to the next shareable destination and back home to the Airbnb. In a culture based on networked sharing, where attention and social validation function as their own economies, one has to wonder: If the purpose of travel is to learn and grow, as Felip suggests, through our experiences with the unknown. If it is, at its core, an opportunity for the closed parts of brain to generate empathy, then what, exactly, is this new version of travel dictated by, and for, shared content?
A year ago, a friend asked if I wanted to venture outside the city to Cuadra San Cristóbal, an iconic, 7.5-acre modernist “ranch” designed by Luis Barragán. It’s described by the Barragán estate as “a triumph of geometry… and the genius of simplicity.” It’s a singularly beautiful example of vision architecture. One that has been lionized by minimal-design fetishists, leisure lifestylers, and even Louis Vuitton, who shot a campaign at Cuadra San Cristóbal in 2016.
I was a last-minute addition to a group that belonged to a specific class of the global creative diaspora—a Mexican director of photography, an Australian designer, a Mexican fashion photographer living in London, a Chilean stylist, and myself, an American masquerading as an artist. Having spent so much time listening to friends talk of “experiencing” Barragán, I was, admittedly, ambivalent of their supposed ecstasy, but eager, nonetheless, for some visual stimulus on a warm afternoon.
The property is beautiful, even more so given the surroundings—the smog, the traffic, the deteriorating concrete structures, the ageing Periferico highway. Upon entrance, though, these perturbations are lost at the site of Barragán’s distinctly pink walls. It’s a mesmerizing pink, to be honest. So dazzling in its pure color, the wall felt like a massive Pantone swatch. Not surprisingly, variants on this wall with this perfectly frivolous color have been imitated across the world. Seeing the original, in person, felt oddly like encountering a strange facsimile from some other time, a distant memory coming to life to in the desert.
Moving closer to the wall, entering into the distance at which the iPhone’s gaze typically frames it, I’m suddenly not sure where we are at all. Posed bodies and bright pink dominate my focus. From this perspective, without the assistance of a geotag noting that we are, in fact, at a much heralded cultural institution, it would be near impossible to tell where were I am. Or why this photo is important to the people around me. We could be at the Paul Smith store wall in Los Angeles, where similar scenes are taking place, at this moment. Or we could be outside Teatro Benito Juárez in Cuauhtémoc. Or in Merida, searching for a cantina with a fan and cochinita pibil. We could even be in a Comex store (The Mexican paint company has licensed Barragán’s unique palette to sells in their stores.) Yet, I am here in the liminal space of memories informed by social media, framed by the lens of the camera, populated by those seeking the approval of an unseen audience, where the context of an architectural icon has been stripped bare. Its intimacy replaced with anonymity. It’s legend reduced to a trinket.
We can go anywhere, yet we choose to follow in the footsteps of a set of footprints in an endless recursion all the way to the Casa Barragán’s of the world.
The ranch has become an must-see location ever since the Louis Vuitton campaign featured Barragán’s pink and lavender walls, the groundskeeper told me as I looked for my scattered party of visitors. Moments later, I found them, silhouetted against the pink walls, locked in quiet repose, looking cool, essentially, against what could be called the world’s coolest wall. “It’s your turn,” the Chilean stylist said to me, nodding towards the Barragán’s backdrop. To her surprise, I declined.
“What do you mean?,” she said, as if I failed to comprehend the nature of our visit. Without a pause, she moved on, snapping a high-angled selfie in front of the pink wall, for good measure
Of course, going to an iconic location—be it the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, or El Angel de la Independencia—and taking a photo in front of it is nothing new. People have been sharing similar travel experiences for decades via photos, slideshows, and home videos, but there is a new dynamic driving our need to share experiences today. Enabled by a global sharing platform, with an endless demand for content, that in turns distributes it endlessly across the world, we are compelled to share our encounters with the exotic and once local landmarks of the world in exchange for social currency and its conjoined ability to inflate our personal self-worth. This compulsion is reshaping travel, and what travel can offer the human mind, the world over.
In the age of documentation and distribution of our lives, it’s hard not to imagine our instatravels as nothing more than a way to create what theorist Tom Vanderbilt terms “cheaply acquired tokens of identity.” In the so-called “attention economy,” these tokens of identity are valuable currency for the act of building personal “brands” and acquiring like-minded followers—both things money can’t buy directly.
Our interactions with the environments we travel through become exchanges, then. Glorified mining expeditions for valuable content. A visual colonization of the unseen world (or in the hands of lesser minds, a less valuable imitation). In this exchange, not even the possibility of living in the moment is afford to us argues Vanderbilt. “We can try to ‘live for the moment,’ but how long is that ‘moment,’ before we are already shuttling it off into our memory, encoding it with the gauzy Instagram filters of our minds?” he asks. In exchange for social currency, these ‘moments’ are no longer assigned to the safe corridors of our memories, but now, instead, the distant servers of the world’s largest tech companies.
The very concept of travel has conflated itself with the POV of the smartphone, where experiences can not longer be conceived of outside the camera frame. Our bodies may be in remote locales but the mind spends these moments in dislocated confinement. We’ve willing trapped ourselves. Travel is now the pursuit of a perfect POV, a schizoid ethos that flies in the face of Sebastian Felip’s instance that travel is simply “to be truly engaged in an activity.” But, then again, perhaps engagement is the new activity to which travel has become truly committed.
In taste circles, the concept of Adaptive Learning suggests that people are more likely to learn about things that make them feel good. Likes make us feel good. Social currency makes us feel rich in a way that our economic status cannot. We see people garnering likes when they take a photo of themselves against a pink wall. And since we are quick learners, we go to the pink wall. In every way, the social feed has begun to dictate how we traverse the globe. We can go anywhere, yet we choose to follow in the footsteps of a set of footprints in an endless recursion all the way to Casa Barragan, the Leaning Tower of Pisa for Generation POV.
We are more acquainted with the places we voyage to than any age before ours. So much so that we are likely to judge a place by comparing it to the photos we’ve seen in the feed, rather than its physical presence in the world. Digital impressions compete with physical encounters. A sense of nostalgia colors corners of the world we’ve never stepped foot in. Meeting our new nature halfway is a homogenous aesthetic that’s calibrated (or, ever more so, opportunistically assembled) for familiarity, a sanctuary for the adapted masses. Or, as the journalist Kyle Chayka describes the phenomenon: “technology is also shaping the physical world, influencing the places we go and how we behave in areas of our lives that didn’t heretofore seem so digital.”
In a world of endless options, endless possibilities, has Instagram enhanced our neophobic tendencies?
Inevitably these places—structures, stores, sculptures—feel as if they are cut from the same cloth. Inanimate structures exist as a backdrop for anyone seeking a valuable POV, a clearinghouse for modern exchange. The identifying markers are ubiquitous: glossy white tile, gentle variants of flora, bespoke neon, hand-hammered brass and copper, insipid transliterations of hashtagged phrases to reward our certain voyages. To seek these sterilized spaces, to make these sterilized spaces to be sought after: this is the ouroboros inflicted upon a culture in endless pursuit of POV. It is, as Chayka notes, the very “product that users are coming to demand.”
In a world of endless options, endless possibilities, has Instagram enhanced our Neophobic tendencies? If you were to open up the stream at this moment, you would be granted visual access to any popular, gentrified neighborhood the world around? In this moment, it is yours. Now, pull up the rare, weird, exotic, and singular locales of this globe. Make your query “advanced” and single out the organic and alienating, the hair raising and the sublime. Animate your search with the variables of human chance and collision. The ineffable, it would seem, has yet to work its way into the feed.
Discovery, for that matter, suffers too in the pursuit of POV, and it’s not simply the discovery of the exotic that I’m talking about here. But the discovery of the self, the least sharable experience offered by travel. The composer Paul Bowles writes of this integral human action in his novel on the existential angst of travel, The Sheltering Sky. “Whenever he was en route from one place to another, he was able to look at his life with a little more objectivity than usual. It was often on trips that he thought most clearly, and made the decisions that he could not reach when he was stationary.”
The experience Bowles writes about is familiar to me, but distantly. It used to be something obvious during many trips, from childhood vacations to weeks-long journeys through Vietnam, India, and Ireland. But this was all before everything outside of the frame became obscured. I wonder, now, if this perspective will be lost forever to POV tourism. Objectivity, distance outside of one’s self, this always to be the premise of travel to me—emphasis on the journey, not the destination. A Kerouac-ian outlook, sure, but one that lifts us from the ubiquity and routine of regular life. One that makes us feel alien, miserable—alive. To fall face first into a state of total vulnerability beyond the shallow comfort of our devices. To gain perspective, in order to inform our daily lives, when—if—we return to them. In the POV-headspace, no matter the distance our bodies may have come, we’re still right where we’ve started.