Saturday, March 19, 2011

Intimate Tourism: Affective Modalities

Philadelphia is the “City of Brotherly Love,” or more gender appropriately (thanks to Emily Winderman) “The City that Loves you Back.” It is appropriate then that the major Philadelphia tourism corporation and the Mural Arts Project have love themed approaches.

“Love From Philly,” coined by the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Company (GPTMC) began in May of 2009. Meeting with Director of Marketing, Cara Schneider, today she kindly talked to me about the genesis of the “Love from Philly” campaign. She said that it emerged in 2009 out of a meeting with most of the Philadelphia tourism industry representatives responding to a “vague feeling” that a change in strategies should occur in the wake of the 2008 recession. Cara says:

“That was really our CEO’s brilliance: in 08 she felt like she was beginning to see different patterns, you know, she obviously reads the papers, and you know just talking to restaurant owners and hoteliers and all the people we talk to all the time, there was a sense that things were shifting people were getting nervous, there was a new need, social media was usurping traditional media, and all of those things were just giving people a sense of ,not of impending doom, but of something is changing down the pike and we need to be doing something differently, it was a very vague feeling and there was a call for a big idea.”

Here marketing is understood as successful attunement: paying attention, looking for patterns, being receptive to social anxiety—in short it is a kind of affective mapping.

The Love Letter campaign is a series of playful letters, written in handwritten font, signed “Philadelphia XOXO” with short inviting messages about things, people, and characteristics of Philadelphia. It is still occurring, and targets general audiences, but also puts out lines for specific demographics.

I asked Cara about the graphic design, and what the intent was and what kind of voice it established. She noted:

“Philadelphia’s campaigns have always involved love and humor and personality in different ways. That one, the handwriting is fun because it personalizes the city, the theme of the campaign, the idea behind it is that the letters are coming from Philadelphia itself and Philadelphia is a place that has sort of a likeable chummy personality, we certainly run the gamut between the experiences that range from bad Eagles game experiences to Hope Montgomery Scott and the Philadelphia story type experiences, but, solidly in the middle there is this approachable, palsy type of feeling with a little color and a little attitude and whatever. So the tone of the campaign could reflect that—and a little sassy, but ultimately respectful, and you’ll notice that the letters never, they never outwardly insult anybody else… developing the voice was an important part of the campaign and it has always been important for us to have a little humor. And that come through in speeches Meryl [CEO of GPTMC] gives and the way that we handle some crises and in a lot of the campaigns.”

Tone, affect and a sense of humor not particular message are the defining characteristic of the letters. They establish conduits of inimtacy to strangers mediated by references to known sites, cultural tropes, or feelings. Instead of a particular image Schneider describes the marketing strategy as one of affective mapping and responding to the needs of “whole people with diverse interests,” not a segmented tourist experience that happens in a discrete geographic zone.

The Love Letter tour is one example of the kind of multimodal and integrative tourism that Philadelphia is moving towards, but one that mural arts required from the outset.

The Love Letter campaign painted by Stephen Powers, a former graffiti artist known as ESPO was unveiled in September 2009and sponsored by a grant from the Pew Charitable trust, and coordinated by the Mural Arts Program. The “Love Letter Tour,” which has been offered year-round since the project’s completion is a fifty piece series along the Market-Frankford Blue Line East-West line on the elevated tracks between the 46th street station and the 63rd street station. Stephen, who is a Philadelphia native and tagged all over Philadelphia in the eighties responded to a call for a project to draw attention to areas which have been less economically viable in recent years.

The tour is led by Mural Arts docents, and they meet tourists at the Love Visitor Center at Love Park, north of City Hall. My sister and I went at 10 a.m. this morning, along with a group of four thirty-ish women, a middle aged woman, and a college/early twenties girl. Describing the tour in its entirety would flatten it, and also take too much space, but one of the most striking elements of the tour is the importance of one orienting ones body appropriately in space.

The tour guide made sure to caution us early on to expect not to see all of the murals. Unlike a gallery experience or City Hall the object does not hold still even though the murals are on fixed surfaces, because the mode of viewing is one based on movement. The murals, although painted in bright colors, are carefully integrated into the building spaces where they are installed, and so often emerge out of unexpected corners saluting the viewer as they speed by on the Market street sign. One has to constantly look from side to side, and it is an active train used by commuters who are not just on a leisure trip. Jockeying for seats occurs, the train horn blares on and off. And the murals never look exactly like they do on the website—the project is also a study in the longevity of different kinds of painting techniques so over the last two years the installations have been allowed to fade, making their colors change dramatically.

Further, we were told that we would be “in the public” and so should not expect there to be room in the train, to be able to see outside of every window, and for it to be quiet. This was made concrete was we walked through the Suburban Station entrance to the Market Street Station and walked past several sleeping homeless people, and waited with several other commuters.

The contingency of the tour reminded me of walks I’ve taken through wildlife areas where I do not know if I will see every kind of wildlife: approaching fifty works of art at high speed from an unstable and optically occluded viewing station through light on the fact that urban space is intensely alive. It changes over time, reveals and hides different things from the viewer based on time of day, weather, the viewer’s level of attunement, and so forth.

The messages in the Love Letter tour underscored and complicates the “voice” that Cara Schneider explained to me as an exemplary model for Philadelphia. The Love Letter tour is working in the tradition of another Philadelphia tagger, Cornbread, who in the 60s left love notes to his girlfriend on Philadelphia walls (
It is playful, and intimate, but in a way that is based on the most banal everyday objects and interactions, and as noted above, destined to decay. So there is love but also a sense of the fragility of love because of the ephemerality of the works.

Further, the site specificity of the murals implies a dependence on a constantly changing environment, and in some ways might contain the seeds of their obsolescence: they mostly gesture to their sites of inscription, for example, the “Right” mural is composed out of dollar bills and is over the Dollar Store, however, one of the functions of the project is to increase commercial traffic on that twenty block strip of the Market Street corridor. However, increased money flows will necessarily change the face of the streetscape, leaving (if they remain) the murals as ghostly relics of times past.

Finally I’ll note the strategy for the campaign—that of attention getting and increased SEPTA ridership—by soliciting the attention of riders through love notes from unknown parties lays bare the importance of creating new affective maps through cities in order to change their economic terrain. The bodies that orient themselves towards looking out into neighborhoods that previously were mere background associate those spaces with humor, sincerity, and conviviality.

On a more cautious note I am curious about the role that movement plays in abstracting the pieces from their locale. Concretely I mean that when on the tour we never left train stations. Part of this is economic: it would be an extra two-dollar token to re-embark every time, however, part of it creates a sense that one need not encounter the work at street level. To what degree are intimate, face to face encounters with people that are the stewards of mural arts necessary? Does the mediation of the train, the docent, and, if one takes the tour on their own, the map, transform neighborhoods between 46th and 63rd into gallery walls or does it in fact energize those spaces in the imaginaries of strangers?

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