Today, walking in the old city of Tallinn, enchanted by the narrow cobblestone streets and tall brick buildings, my gaze drawn upwards by the spire of a church, I noticed a small spherical object floating lazily upwards. A balloon? But near colourless against the grey sky, and shifting shape, warbling, rippling in the wind, I realised it was a soccer ball sized bubble. What a strange thing. Adrift from its creator and soaring precariously upward above the city it was a pleasant sight, like a small detail placed carefully in the corner of a painting, a charming addition to the scene as a whole. A few more minutes of aimless sightseeing and I noticed another, not as strange this time – where there is one there should be two, it was scooting along at street level pursued gleefully by a small child wrapped up in a winter jacket. Soon after I found a cluster of the undulating orbs rushing toward me from the same direction. Swept by the wind, they phased between a bright rainbow of colours like excited squid. As the bubbles passed I spotted a gathered crowd and beyond that, their creator, like a conductor of sorts, with two large sticks aloft (fishing rods, it turns out) from which the bubbles vigorously emerged. The man was a street performer and peddled his bubble creations for tips. Small kids stood by enchanted, waiting eagerly for a chance to jump and strike the bubbles from the sky, and tourists waited also, with their phone or camera ready. The bubbles emerged from a sudsy apex at the meeting of the two sticks in a blaze of phosphorescent colour. Slick with detergent and fanned by the winter wind they billowed out quickly, reaching three metres of length in a second or two. A long multicoloured ribbon in carnivalesque colour. A psychedelic bottle blown of flimsy, airy, wavering glass. At times when the wind was less strong (or perhaps when the conductor moved his rods in a different manner) the bubbles likewise emerged differently, sometimes popping out concurrently in a burst of 10 or so globes ranging from tennis ball to swiss ball in size. Sometimes the conductor blew onto them gently and part of the outer wall would spill over into the centre to create a bubble within a bubble. Immediately brilliant, fluorescent, thick with detergent, a riot of colour, the bubbles lost some of their brilliance (evaporation?) if they lived long enough to find themselves swept along the street. But then it wasn’t long before a new batch emerged to delight the crowd, the conductor repeating the process every minute or so.
Whether purposefully or by chance, the man was set up on the very corner outside the Tallinn City Tourist Information Office. This was interesting to me as the bubbles contributed very obviously to what I have been thinking of lately as “presentational place”. That is a location which has been shaped specifically to facilitate online self-presentation. How did those bubbles do that? Because they were bright, cheerful, whimsical and inviting, they suited the type of image that people like to present online. In their dynamic, roving nature they were also interactive. Tourists waited with baited breath and chased them as they appeared, posing in front with a cheeky outstretched finger, or a mock hug, for a friend to snap. The bubbles moved with a rhythm and logic of their own (albeit one influenced by the breeze) and the tourists followed, a game in which one could never be sure of the outcome making it all the more enjoyable. The conductor had set up a small speaker playing feel-good pop music, encouraging the participation of those who stopped. Sometimes the bubbles had to be dodged or ducked. Riding the wind tunnel created by the building-lined street they swept along as if a natural part of the landscape, adding to the atmosphere and catching the attention of passersby. Kids lined up like stray dogs waiting for scraps, delighted if they were able to snatch one of the rippling shapes out of the air with a tiny pop of splattered detergent. Many people took photos, and these airy colourful globes surely added an eye-catching dimension to the snaps in which they appeared. Perhaps the conductor’s act had even been developed with tourist photography in mind? Perhaps it was requested by the Tourist Office? Was it just coincidence that the shiny yellow-pink gradient which shone from the bubbles so accurately evoked the colour scheme of the Instagram icon on my phone? Perhaps so, but the connection was unmissable in my eyes.
There is nothing new about commercial places being designed to attract attention in order to provide a focal point for sightseeing and tourist photography. Take, for example, Wall Drug, an American roadside stop located in the small town of Wall, South Dakota which, for nearly a century, has utilised a heavy campaign of marketing on highway billboards to draw in tourists. The stop has offered a diverse range of promotional services such as free ice water, 5c coffee, historical exhibitions, and life-sized models of real (dinosaurs) and fantastical (jackalope) creatures to encourage tourists to stop. This disparate amalgam of atrractions and promotional strategies means that the site is famous for being, “nothing other than a celebrated place” (Franklin & Crang, 2001) with its appeal based on brand recognition and attention value. While the atmosphere at Wall Drug is famously kitschy and liable to change, its novelty and strong brand name meant that many tourists were eager to promote the location through word of mouth, bumper stickers or even home-made highway billboards, thus contributing to its ongoing success. Meanwhile, back in Estonia, the bubbles released by the conductor transformed the otherwise normal street corner into a “presentational place”, a backdrop against which online tourist photos could be taken. It can be seen that such a place also utilises attention value by deploying an interesting visual feature which adds value to tourists’ photos. In order to explore this idea of presentational place further, a good place to look is recent developments in the restaurant sector. Here, articles in the mainstream press explain how modern eateries are increasingly focusing on details such as lighting, camera angles and showpiece features or dishes which look good within the square Instagram frame in order to entice customers (Brown, Fast Company; Newton, The Verge). In a similar way to Wall Drug, these developments arguably come at the expense of substance, in this case, the food served in these eateries. As Brown highlights, in such a presentational place, what the meal tastes like is indeed less important than how good it looks:
“Of course that [taste] might not even matter. For a certain iPhone-wielding section of society, proof of purchase is the only thing that matters. … Restaurant owners now understand that if they play their cards right, their customers will not only pay for a meal but beam their plates to hundreds or thousands of followers.”
As a good-looking meal translates into visual social media more easily than a good-tasting meal, restaurants’ preference may slide toward the former in order to secure the promotion of eaters. The same may be true of presentational places in an experiential sense, as long as a good photo can be produced, the rest of the experience may not matter as much. Where presentational places differ from the kitschy attractions of old, however, is that their boundaries are extended into the digital environment where promotion occurs largely at the hands of amateur users rather than the entity itself. Thanks to social media, physical places also have an virtual component (virtual place) formed at the junction of both professional and user-created representations. This consists of the place’s official website and social media channels (if it indeed has these), and, likely more substantively, of user created narratives such as images sorted by hashtags, personal narratives collated on a review site, blog posts, comments or personal messages. The networked nature of online place can mean massive exposure for the physical location (as happened with Trolltunga) which is great for businesses but sometimes hard to deal with given the realities of actual physical space (capacity limits, infrastructure, impact on adjacent properties).
What then is the consequence of presentational place for tourism? If places are designed to facilitate online self-presentation, then the logic of the online platforms where this presentation occurs then comes to imbue these tourist places and the social interactions that occur there. Online self-presentation is far from value neutral and is shaped by the platforms which host it and their imperatives as commercial entities. In visual social media, presentation takes a surface focus on the visible elements of a given scene. In the case of the restaurants above this is translated in customers seeking the Instagram-focussed imperatives of nice lighting, shiny colours, attention-grabbing features and murals or product packaging featuring pleasant, witty phrases. Such features are ‘taught’ to tourists by highly followed social media tastemakers and become repeated in the hermeneutic circle of representation, infiltrating the form of tourism as a whole. Thus, tourist performance and narratives must be seen as being shaped by the imperatives of social media platforms and the algorithims, economies, influencers, user cultures or platform practices through which these imperatives are enacted.
How does this relate to the bubble conductor? Perhaps he souped up the detergent to make the bubbles more vividly colourful to get more tips? Or, perhaps, like the rock ledge at Trolltunga he finds himself, by pure coincidence, to be something that looks good on Instagram and is helpless to the developing circle of representations produced by the tourists who visit? Either way we may understand that presentational places play an important role in ICT mediated tourism and will likely be increasingly sought after by tourists as important showpieces within the consumptive mode of sightsharing.
The conductor with crowd participant (the author also had a go!)
A presentational place at Tallinn Airport. A cleverly designed environment (indeed, a gate) which invites the user to take a photo of a charming natural scene from a perspective that make it seem realistic. The rustic bridge and calm forest are then juxtaposed with the airline desks and (potentially open) door leading to the airplane. The interplay of distinct elements creates a fun and striking image which can be used on social media. Notice the request for tourists to “share your experience” provided alongside the #visitestonia hashtag. Eye-catching presentational places like this one are a staple of the sightsharing mode of touristic consumption and may be created as part of a promotional or business strategy.
From the pink circle