The sublime stage @ Trolltunga

Based on my observations, and considering the literature I have been reading which explains tourist practice in light of performance, I would like to assert five reasons why the rock ledge at Trolltunga is a sublime stage.

1. The tongue [Place]
Trolltunga means troll’s tongue. The rock ledge at this site, a (roughly) 20 x 4 metre rocky platform protruding out toward Ringesvaldt Lake does indeed resemble a giant tongue extended out into the crisp mountain air. This unique natural formation (and the photo opportunity it presents) provide much of the appeal of this destination and is as such one of the main factors contributing to its rapid growth. The size and shape of the rock ledge attracts visitors to walk out onto it. According to promotional texts, venturing out onto this precipice creates a sense of defying gravity as is the sheer drop on three sides and the 700m or so of empty space below. As Fjord Norway [a] describes it:

Imagine the feeling when standing, perhaps sitting out there at the tip, almost floating between the sky and the water, an almost surreal and truly sensational feeling.

Indeed, the flatness and apparent stability of the rock platform do make it so that the ledge can be conquered by the average person. It’s flat, platform-like shape does also allow a great space for poses which may be easily photographed from surrounding viewpoints.

2. Aura [Authenticity]
 Drawing on the work of Walter Benjamin, tourism scholars have discussed the role “aura” in contributing to the authenticity of a location and thus its attractiveness as a touristic destination (McCannell, 1976; Rickly-Boyd, 2012).  Aura is a subjective and abstract phenomenon that is shaped by the positive attributes of a given thing, such as uniqueness, reputation or impressiveness. Thus, Benjamin (2008, cited in Rickly-Boyd, 2012, p.270) defines aura as a: “strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of a distance however near it may be.” At Trolltunga, the dramatic natural formations and complex layering of colours and light create a stunning visual effect. The hike and site are largely ‘natural’, there are few man-made structures and these are low key in nature. The impressive visual aspect and wild nature coalesce in a feeling of wonder that is accessible yet elusive in its grandeur. This feeling, in combination with the physical exertion needed to visit, likely contribute to a heightened existential awareness on the part of the visitors, emphasising the auratic nature of this site. Aura is rare and thus valuable to tourists as it creates a powerful environment for performances of self. Interestingly, MacCannell (1976) points to the Grand Canyon (a site with significant parallels to Trolltunga) as an example of an auratic tourist location.

3. Private performance [Control and choreography]
The space at Trolltunga has developed implicit rules for tourist conduct based on both environmental factors at the site and the shared goals of tourists. Environmental factors include the hazardous nature of this site, in particular the steep drop-off from the rock ledge and surrounding areas. The dangerous nature of this site was highlighted in the fatal fall of an Australian tourist in 2015. In the time since this accident, promotional strategies of DMOs such as Fjord Norway have shifted from promoting the photographic opportunities at the rock, highlighted through text like “If you want a lot of likes on Facebook you should go walking in a picture postcard”, or, photographs of travellers performing impressive stunts (see: Walker Rettberg, 2015), toward a more responsible outlook emphasising responsible hiking practice as a key part of visiting, for example: “CONSIDER CAREFULLY WHETHER YOU ARE IN GOOD ENOUGH SHAPE AND HAVE THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT BEFORE SETTING OUT” (Fjord Norway b). The rapid growth of the site in recent years, based largely but by no means exclusively on amateur promotion on social media, means that visitor numbers have seen significant increases year after year. A high percentage of visitors intend to share photos from the site on social media (90%, according to a study by Evers [2016]) meaning that during peak times within the hiking season tourists must line up so that they can have their own photographic moment at the ledge. This practice is not only safety-oriented, it also ensures that tourists are able to take a private photo which features only chosen participants and does not contain unknown others. Estimated wait time at lunchtime on the day the author visited was one hour and a half hours. This significant demand for photos means that visitors may only have a limited timeframe on the rock ledge in which to conduct photographic performances, or else risk violating the turn-taking rules. However, such a process ensures that, for a short period of time, the tourists may use the ledge like a stage in order to engage in a private performance. Indeed, the fact that many tourists choose to carry props (such as flags or personally significant items), or costumes, despite the 10 or 15km hike to the ledge, highlights the explicit nature of the site as a stage for presentations of self.

4. Onlookers [Audience]
The rock ledge at Trolltunga has an atmosphere that is at once transcendent and intimate. Visitors occupy a private, auratic space amidst grand nature, yet, this brief occupation is in most cases subject to the regulations of turn-taking and cooperation (that said, there are times when the site is less busy, and the processes may not be in effect). Thus, performances on the rock ledge are commonly viewed by a significant audience of other tourists surrounding the ledge, both those waiting in line and others resting or camping. Indeed, this is a common scenario for touristic sites in which posing or other behaviours are regulated by the “disciplinary gaze” of onlookers (Edensor, 2000; 2001). Significantly, while standing on the tongue, tourists commonly face this gallery of onlookers for photographs. This means that performers are likely conscious of the unknown audience who may view their performance, both those on-site, and, by extension, online.  Thus, the audience, and in particular, the unknown imagined audience forms an explicit context for the performances which take place on the tongue.

5. Materialisation [Representation]
Performances are recorded and materialised through the visual practices of photography and video (as well as accompanying text). Such materialisation seeks to capture the extraordinary nature of the site and the tourists’ proximity to it in order to open avenues for social capital (Crang, 1999). These representations are based on previously consumed materials and serve to create the template for future performances (i.e. the hermeneutic cycle of representation). Through the narrative process, certain behaviours or trends ascend within representation and thus create the pedagogical model through which the site is experienced and which edify the sense of the “stage” present at the location.
Conclusion:
The five elements presented above in square brackets i.e. place, authenticity, control & choreography, audience, and representation, characterise the nature of the “sublime stage” present at Trolltunga. These elements are discussed in order to highlight the fact that any landscape feature (built or natural) may potentially comprise a stage for touristic performance if it satisfies some, or all, of the criteria discussed above (or, if it provides other outcomes valuable to the presentation of self). Tourism is a socially shaped yet personal activity meaning that tourists are free to impute personal significance to any location. This explains why there were numerous photos being taken on the way to Trolltunga in addition to those being taken on the ledge itself.  Tourists’ self-presentation thus takes place in a way that is flexible and contingent, however, which at the same time likely prioritises certain areas as backgrounds for performance given the particular characteristics they may add to that performance (e.g. aura, scenery, alterity, … ). Tourists’ knowledge of touristic sites and conduct, as well as that of the cultures and economies of social media (i.e. the “selfie gaze”) provides a frame through which to identify relevant stages for touristic performance within the travelled-to landscape.

References:

Crang, M. (1999) ‘Knowing, tourism and practices of vision.’, in Leisure/tourism geographies : practices and geographical knowledge. London: Routledge, pp. 238-257. Critical geographies. (3).

Edensor, T. (2000). Staging tourism: Tourists as Performers. Annals of Tourism Research, 27, 322-344. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0160-7383(99)00082-1

Edensor, T. (2001). Performing tourism, staging tourism: (Re)producing tourist space and practice. Tourist Studies, 1(1), 59–81.

Evers, A. B. M. (2016). Transforming a Norwegian Landscape into an Iconic Tourist Attraction: The Trolltunga Experience [Unpublished Masters Thesis]. University of Stavanger.

Fjord Norway (a). Trolltunga. Retrieved from: https://www.fjordnorway.com/top-attractions/trolltunga/himmelstigen

Fjord Norway (b). Things to do: Trolltunga. Retrieved from: https://www.fjordnorway.com/things-to-do/trolltunga-p958013

MacCannell, D. (1976). The tourist: A new theory of the leisure class. Shocken books: New York, NY.

Rickly-Boyd, J. (2012). Aura & authenticity: A Benjaminian approach to tourism. Annals of Tourism Research, 39(1), 269–289. doi:10.1016/j.annals.2011.05.003

Walker Rettberg, J. (2015, Sept. 23). More people are killed by tourist brochures than by sharks. Retrieved from: http://jilltxt.net/?p=4347

 

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Reflections on Image and Place @ Trolltunga

Saturday 12.08

Trolltunga features prominently in promotional material from DMOs in Norway. Indeed, it is often found on the cover or in double page spreads. These images refer almost exclusively to the rock ledge and the unique photo opportunity that exists there. From my experiences, it did seem that the rock ledge at Trolltunga was the current star of Norwegian tourism. Its image kept popping up throughout the trip: on postcards and brochures, a glossy canvas in the restaurant at our hotel, in a slideshow at the rental car office… Throughout the trip, we (I), felt its presence: something worthwhile, something we should go and do…

The image the rock ledge at Trolltunga sits within the context of wider Norwegian Tourism. Fjords are an iconic image of Norway. This distinctive landscape underpins Norway’s destination image as “powered by nature”.  Fjords and glaciers have been popular destinations in Norway for a long time. The ‘discovery route’ developed for continental tourists was popular in the early c20th as tourists moved by passenger liner or horse and cart along the Hardanger Fjord.  Industrialisation ended this tourist rush as industry and pollution tarnished the views. Yet, in the later half of the c20th, Norwegian tourism was reinvigorated by new forms of excursion like cruises and self-driving tours as supported by the growth of destinations like Bergen, Trollstigen, the Lofoten islands and the North Cape. In recent years, hiking has ascended as a more active way of experiencing the Norwegian landscape. An example of this can be seen in Pulpit Rock (Preikestolen) near Stavanger. Much like Trolltunga, this impressive rock platform is accessed via a strenuous hike. The sites of Pulpit Rock and Trolltunga are quite similar, yet there are salient differences. The hike at Pulpit Rock is considerably shorter and the rock platform is much larger and flatter. The ‘iconic’ images of these sites reproduce these differences. Images of Pulpit Rock usually show a heterogenous group of visitors (from a quick browse of Google image search, around 20-40 people), or, if the subject is alone, the foreground is much shorter than at Trolltunga and thus the image less impressive. In contrast, images of Trolltunga usually feature a single traveller or a small intimate group on the rock ledge and generally do not show unknown others. Saliently, Trolltunga has a turn-taking system ensuring that tourists can get a photo by themselves or with chosen others on the ledge (someone in line may take this shot for them). This system is undoubtedly safety-oriented given the rock ledge’s narrow profile and steep drop-off, however, it likely responds to the photographic opportunities presented by this space as well. The catwalk-like shape of the rock ledge at Trolltunga, combined with the magnificent view in the background creates a unique space for photographs which is simultaneously intimate and transcendent. The ledge at Trolltunga is thus a stage; a space of self-performance where a single actor or group of actors enact a monologue or dialogue for the (online) audience. Owing to the wide reach of Trolltunga images in both social and mainstream media, tourists may perform a self that is concocted in advance, one that is imagined as tickets are booked and finalised during packing when costume and props are decided upon. Digital photography and social media are an explicit context for this performance, and, thus, for the site as a whole. The arduous nature of the journey (a 20-30 km return hike done either in one day or combined with overnight camping) adds legitimacy to the traveller’s chosen performance on the rock ledge (and is often mentioned in comments). Travellers’ self performance is thus earned not merely self-proclaimed.

The image of Trolltunga in promotional materials, foregrounding, but perhaps underplaying, the challenging nature of the hike, portrays the rock ledge as a space where identity is constructed. The active nature of hiking supports traveller’s self-presentation, allowing them to assert self-image through choices in performance, capture and display. The arduous hike, and self-transformational nature of tourism itself, add credibility to the performance at Trolltunga. The performative space of the rock ledge builds on the context of Norweigan nature tourism as a whole including sites like Pulpit Rock. Indeed, one should not miss the symbolism that a pulpit is indeed a kind of stage. This symbolism is enhanced by the physical shape of the ledge at Trolltunga and furthermore the construction of touristic place by tourists themselves (i.e. turn-taking) which is shaped by the pedagogical and performative background of social media. While the spatial and interpersonal relationships at Trolltunga have a predominantly harmonius nature at present (excepting rescues, accidents), it is worth considering how sustainable this atmosphere is considering growing tourist numbers, and whether there will need to be any changes in this place (the path, for example, or other amenities) as tourist numbers grow. If so, what effects would these have on this “natural”, challenging experience?

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1) “Powered by Nature” from Visit Norway homepage

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2) A modernised version of the “Discovery Route” promotion at a hotel in Hardanger region

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3) Visual your improved self, while enjoying our complementary buffet breakfast! Oslo airport hotel.

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4) Promotional materials and postcards

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5) Trolltunga vs Pulpit Rock as presented in Fjord Norway brochure. Full page image below. Notice the intimate vs shared nature of the rock platform.

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