“It is better to travel ten thousand li [unit of distance] than to read ten thousand books” is a common Chinese saying said to have originated from the story of Sima Qian, a Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD) official, who travelled for over a decade across China in order to write Records of the Grand Historian, one of the first tomes written on Chinese history.
The concept of travelling to gain knowledge and better oneself through exposure to art and culture was also practiced in the West, with the Grand Tours for young upper class European men of the 17th to 19th centuries. At Le Salon, an ongoing discussion series organised by Marc & Chantal, Simon Westcott, CEO of LUXE City Guides, spoke of the human desire to see beyond where we live and the excitement of discovering new places, which triggers a “physical high”.
Art is one of the key filters through which we engage in novel experiences and share them with others.
Today, travellers continue to seek a deeper understanding of ourselves and other cultures through the places we visit and the experiences encountered there. Art is one of the key filters through which we engage in novel experiences and share them with others. In contemporary practice, art fans follow fairs like Art Basel from Basel and Miami to Hong Kong, and search high and low for museums, outdoor installations and street art.
The relative ease of travel in today’s world has made such experiences much more accessible and no longer the prerogative of the privileged few. At Le Salon, Doryun Chong, Chief Curator of M+ (Hong Kong’s new museum for visual culture), mentioned a trip to Italy where his “room with a view” moment was altered by the arrival of a busload of Chinese tourists, which prompted him to think of what knowledge or openness to new perspectives they might bring home. Despite being in the same physical location, their style of travel and worldview were very different to his although the desire to feed one’s mind through travel was shared. To that end, Chong noted at the Salon that many private collections and museums in Japan were founded through the acquisition of art while travelling. In the Chinese context, it appears that this is also beginning to happen now, in terms of acquiring objects as well as bringing home new experiences.
A Virtual Dimension to Travel
The pursuit of knowledge and cultural dialogue can now happen beyond real-life travel and interaction thanks to the Internet age. Social networks make broadcasting one’s whereabouts a matter of a tap on a screen and search engines make preparing for a trip and armchair travel easier than ever.
Online travel guides and blogs are aplenty, but most focus on assisting the traveller in practical matters like building a daily itinerary of activities. Rarer are resources like The Culture Trip that focus on priming the visitor’s mind. The site makes destination-specific suggestions of films and literature to view and read before travel, such as watching Bernardo Bertolucci’sLittle Buddha before heading to Bhutan, or reading Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang to prepare for a trip to Taiwan.
The Culture Trip recommends books, films and itinerary suggestions that are culturally relevant.
Courtesy of www.theculturetrip.com
Past View enables tourists to experience parts of the city as if they had stepped into the past.
Courtesy of www.pastview.es
A recent development concerning the technology of travel is augmented reality, whereby an individual can experience added ‘layers’ to their current time and place, through the use of head-mounted displays. For instance, Past View, based in Seville, Spain, provides visitors with a visor and headphones, connected to a smartphone, which allows them to experience parts of the city as if they had stepped into the past.
Digital tools ‘can’ encourage mindfulness during the journey by immersing travellers deeper into the narrative of the destination – its past, present, myths and inspirations.
Soundwalk, a downloadable series of city and theme specific audio guides, stimulates another sense – hearing to enhance one’s travel experiences. The company’s avant-garde “sound journeys” fuse spoken word, music and ambient sounds to create “soundtracks” to each destination. From a verbal tour through Varanasi to a walk along the Bronx’s famous graffiti walls, the downloads produce a virtual encounter and deliver a new, different experience.
Although arguably less practical, these methods enrich the intellectual, cultural and artistic context of travel. These tools encourage mindfulness during the journey
by immersing travellers deeper into the narrative of the destination – its past, present, myths and inspirations.
Neonsigns.hk, an online exhibition of the iconic neon signs in Hong Kong.
Courtesy of www.neonsigns.hk
In addition, it is because of digital projects like NeonSigns.hk, an online exhibition of Hong Kong’s iconic neon signage, that M+ is already open, even though the physical building is not yet ready. The exhibition retains some traditional elements, in the sense that artists’ works were curated. But by digitally mapping the city’s neon signs, and asking visitors to upload their own photos of the signs (thereby making the visitors the creators), the museum has shown that technology is not only a useful tool, but can change the way we interact with art in a geographical context.
If we see travel as a way of cultural exchange and the accumulation of artistic experiences, the mindlessness brought on by our misuse of technology seems to defeat the purpose of travel in the first place. Yet, there are numerous artists who have come to rely on digital imagery to assist in their creations. Even before the digital age, it was normal for artists and writers, whether amateur or professional, to document their travels through sketchbooks and journals and take home an interpretation of their travels.
Digital Lessons and Challenges
The rise of digital technology has also meant that the cost of documenting a voyage has reduced significantly. For some, this means that they can now revisit memories of their travels over and over again whenever and wherever, send virtual postcards to their loved ones via social networks and broadcast their travel journals to the world. For others, the ease of online interaction and digital tools only serves to tempt over-sharing – an incessant desire to photograph everything, turn on their smartphone apps for guidance and so on, which, some argue, impedes on the traveller’s ability to truly experience the moment, causing them to instead receive stimuli second-hand, despite being right there.
Technology is undoubtedly a great enabler, but at the end of the day, it only provides the tools to a rich experience. Rather than obsessing over our accoutrements, modern life demands that we have sovereignty over our electronic devices – using them wisely, in a way that never impedes on our intellectual desire for a conscious, mindful way of life. •
— Insights on this subject were discussed and gathered at the Marc & Chantal Le Salon talk at the Swire Properties Lounge at Art Basel Hong Kong on 17 May, 2014.