To cite this contribution:
Kretowicz, Steph.‘The Lives of Other People: The “I” in Interpreting the Places I’ve (Never) Been.’ OAR: The Oxford Artistic and Practice Based Research Platform Issue 1 (2017), http://www.oarplatform.com/lives-people-interpreting-places-ive-never/.
There are many problems with what I do for a living. I’m an editor and a journalist who draws on the work of others to inform my own, making a career out of it – a critic. I’ve written about music for over a decade and art for half of that. In that time, I’ve reviewed shows and conducted artist interviews, sharing other people’s thoughts filtered through a tailored lens, while rarely drawing directly on personal experience. Traditional journalism assumes a certain archetypal (masculine) persona of neutral objectivity, or an egoistic one that, aggressively, projects its own position with little regard for its subject (see Gonzo, New Journalism and the many men that write for Vice magazine). I’m a woman, white, also queer. Identity, for me, was for a long time something to be hidden, obscuring my own gender, dismissing my sexuality, and often writing under a pseudonym, because mine was never a voice of authority.
As a bilingual Australian expat with Polish roots and ties to parts of Asia, I’ve grown up largely estranged from my surroundings. I was born in Perth, and live in London, soon to reside in Los Angeles. In my formative years, I travelled and lived abroad with my family, spending time in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Brunei, post-Soviet Poland. Like many Australian students, I’ve backpacked in my past – India, South America, China. From my current UK base, I’ve visited more of Europe, been to parts of the Middle East and gone back and forth to the United States. At 31 years old, I’ve been around the world, observing it with the distance of a drifter – a postcolonial flâneur (you might gender it flâneuse, but it’s complicated). You could call me a travel writer, except that my background of visiting unfamiliar places has never directly influenced my work, until fairly recently. I don’t travel to write – I’m a writer that happens to travel. Yet, for the past three years, I’ve been working on a text that’s near completion. It will be my first book, and the first time I’ve explicitly drawn on my life, as a person who travels. Somewhere I’ve Never Been (SINB) is a cohesive selection of research-based creative essays constructed from field recordings, found audio material, and personal reflections from in and around the United States, Europe and the Middle East between 2012 and 2015.
This non-fiction novel will be the central part of a multi-platform narrative (there is also an audio broadcast element, as well as supplementary texts already published online, and an interactive reading commission for Opening Times) exploring international soundscapes as an expression of heavily mediated environments. In an era of globalisation, mobile, networked technologies and information overload, I’ve approached these phenomena through the concept of mobility, both physical and ‘virtual,’ recording impressions of corporate expansion and pop cultural hegemony (namely that of North America) from the three regions mentioned. So, hearing Jason Derulo’s top-ten hit Talk Dirty single playing in a shoe store in New York, and later from an RV in Los Angeles, is deconstructed and explored by the sum of its multicultural parts, while walking down Hollywood Boulevard. The incessant repetition of Far East Movement’s hip hop electronica of Live My Life, featuring Justin Bieber, is examined in the context of it being played for an Israeli crowd at a Palestinian-run Dead Sea resort – all with the barbed wire ambience and military presence of an army base. Pulling together sound bytes and media from handheld devices, software, websites and iOS applications, the book combines both browser-based artwork and experimental storytelling to evoke the fragmented layers of noise, voice, sound and song that makes up my subjective understanding of the visualised space. It’s an understanding that never goes unfiltered – a bubble.
Kimmo Modig & Steph Kretowicz, Los Angeles, 2016.
SINB takes place physically in various destinations, including but not limited to Bucharest and Brașov in Romania; Iceland; Israel; Palestine; Jordan; Dubai; Muscat and Nizwa in Oman; Bialystok and Warsaw in Poland; parts of Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona in the US. The narrative is mostly non-linear, a vertical rather than horizontal structure of conceptual layers, composed of sensory information, memory and process, that are compressed to form shared spatiotemporal planes of experience which inform an idea, published in print.
The Somewhere I’ve Never Been title means more than simply a reference to both a destination and a poetic lyric from Jennifer Rush’s 1984 single I’m Your Lady, famously covered by Celine Dion in 1993. It also alludes further back to the latter French Canadian artist’s international success and ubiquity, which cultural critic Carl Wilson compares to the ‘steamroller of Anglo-American monoculture as it flattens the world.’1 The sites of research in SINB are physical locations that are emotionally and psychologically felt by me, mediated by my early childhood experiences and preconceptions, constructed by my own upbringing and popular culture engagement – the latter being an overwhelmingly US American one.2
This notion of site, of location, is complicated by the presence of the self, a specific subjectivity, within it. My perceptions of a country I’ve visited are always somewhat incongruous with the preconceptions I had of them prior – yet afterwards both still seem to persist. My Romania of hot barbecued mititei and corporate westernization in recent memory is not the same as my earlier ideas of it, constructed from Australian headlines of neglected orphanages and violent revolution following the fall of the Soviet Union. And yet, like walking a street you’ve already seen from a different angle, one memory never entirely replaces the other: it only builds on top of it. They coexist.
All I can conjure when imagining the country bordering Bulgaria, Ukraine and the Black Sea is Count Dracula and institutionalised neglect; an opening quote from Cool Hand Luke and a whistle from the Wild West – the finger-picked acoustic opening of Guns ’N’ Roses’ Civil War song first sung at the 1990 Romanian Angel orphan appeal. These count for the few bleak depictions I have of a country that is poor, but will counter the impressions gathered from three days at B’estfest. I’m here for their big promotional push to attract an international audience, wrapped up in Vodafone sponsorship and oddly contextualised display racks of Hello! magazine featuring Drew Barrymore’s wedding photos.
The lack of distinction between an idea of a place and the place itself – an ‘objective truth’ – is further complicated when a skewed, biased or simply evident mediation continues in parallel with a new interaction. While travelling through Israel and Palestine, for example, there existed a rupture, not only where my direct experience of the place was informed by what I’d been told in the past, but also with what I was being told in real-time.
When I type ‘bus Jerusalem’ in my iPhone the first two results are tripadvisor.com’s ‘Transportation from Ben Gurion Airport to Jerusalem-Jerusalem’ and cbsnews.com’s ‘Israel bus blown up, shelling of Gaza continues as Clinton…’ – the ‘bus blown up’ and ‘shelling’ are bolded as if those words were part of my search, but they weren’t.
Discourse around contemporary travel literature as a genre – one I’d never taken much interest in until exploring the nature of my own developing writing practice – has made a move away from the problematically anthropological assumption of the author as ‘objective outsider,’ in favour of post-positivism.3 That is, that there exists an objective truth or reality, but there is no way of truly knowing it. This is where my own complicated feelings about my role as a traveller and travel writer – a writer who travels – come in; my anxiety about my freedom to move, and to visit and interpret the sites and the people I’ve come to re-present as visitor, journalist and intermediary.
In an essay accompanying the Wandering/WILDING: Blackness on the Internet group exhibition at London’s IMT Gallery, artist-curator and writer Aria Dean questions any notion of ‘the would-be black flâneur’ following in the tradition of Charles Baudelaire, Edgar Allan Poe and Walter Benjamin.4 She identifies this embodiment of modernist detachment as being both white and male; Dean’s solitary roamer through public space is restricted by how much they physically resemble said embodiment. ‘Ontologically speaking, she can never be a true flâneur, lost alone in the city, because she bears the image and the history of all the other black wanderers who took to the streets (or the fields, the forest, the sea) before her.’5
Mica Levi & Steph Kretowicz, Iceland, 2014, Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus – IV. Regard de la Vierge performed by Ásthildur Ákadóttir.
As a first-generation Australian with two (white) Polish parents, my own identity is split on several levels. Not quite postcolonial, and not quite postsocialist, my connection to both the oppression of the then Soviet state my family fled in 1980, and the dominance of the former British Empire is tenuous. There is little doubt of the privileges already afforded to my parents on account of their ‘whiteness’ in an era still redolent with a then relatively recently dismantled White Australia Policy. Discrimination towards Eastern Europeans existed, of course, but with the benefits of being born into an educated class with an Anglophile mother, my siblings and I were readily (if not awkwardly) assimilated into the naturalised immigrant foundations of occupied Australia. Furthermore, none of the above precludes me from what Doris Lessing called the ‘travelling class,’6 of which I am more or less a part. ‘I need a visa to take a shit,’ a Gulf-born artist once joked with me in an interview that was never published for fear of political ramifications. For her, free speech was also not an option. In Jericho (‘Ariha’ in Arabic), a Palestinian friend explained how it took a Swedish emissary acquaintance for him to acquire the necessary travel permits to see Eminem perform live in Tel Aviv. The two cities are easily a driveable distance apart from each other, but I couldn’t tell you how long it would take, because Google Maps won’t allow it. Gayatri Spivak’s subaltern are still reliant on the good will of whiteness.7 Hence, the postcolonial condition extends well beyond my own identification with a history of British Imperialism. I might not be a British subject by bloodline, but as an Australian citizen, versed in the English lingua franca, I still enjoy its benefits.
In an interview published in 1999, the late South African travel writer Dan Jacobson acknowledges something he claims he’s never openly owned up to before. That there is something ‘vampiric’ about the relationship between the travel writer and the people the travel writer encounters.8 ‘You go among them masked,’ he says, before going on with the core dilemma of the necessary deceit of the undercover journalist, the flâneur. ‘Maybe the falsity of simply not showing your hand results in more genuine dialogue with them than if you did show your hand. That’s how complex these situations are.’9
Until recently, I’d never travelled with the same intention. Travel for me was as much a pleasure as a way of life, but still in that perverse way that Jacobson says a so-called ‘traveller’ distinguishes themself from a ‘tourist’ by ‘the fact that they put themselves through considerable discomfort or danger. They make difficult or dangerous journeys.’10 Although I’d never had an interest in travel writing per se, I’d often kept a journal, writing with some kind of unidentified intention, if not a specific audience, until a publisher found me on Twitter, and gave me one.
With all this in mind, I can’t help but question, ‘who am I writing for and whose is the gain?’ I would hope that sharing my experience, from my subjective position, would help in illuminating the someone of the places and people I encounter. But it’s clear – particularly as Somewhere I’ve Never Been is being published by two small presses – that that reading and listening someone is limited to a pool of English speakers, with access to and an understanding of the internet, probably of an educated class, and certainly with the privilege of an expendable income to spend on a book. That is, my peers, people much like me.
I’m reminded of something that Emily Witt wrote of her own distance and estrangement from the sexual voyeurism of her book Future Sex:
There was no industry of dresses and gift registries for the sexuality that interested me in these years, and some part of the reason I wanted to document what free love might look like was to reveal shared experiences of the lives we were living that fell outside a happiness that could be bought or sold.11
The paradox here is that, as a New York-based investigative journalist, Witt’s search for sex outside of capitalism was generating capital, whether economic or cultural, for herself. It’s the same kind of ‘cultural colonialism’ that anthropologist Diane Lewis describes as the export of data about a country to one’s own home for processing into ‘manufactured’ goods, like books and articles ‘similar to what happens when raw materials are exported at a low price and reimported as manufactured goods at a very high cost.’12 How ‘very high’ the cost is for writing in the 21st century is debatable, but relative to the place the data is being imported from, particularly if it is poor, marginalised or oppressed, there would certainly be a disparity.
Then the question for me becomes, if all this is so problematic, why not rather abdicate my privilege than do it at all? Firstly, I do it because I want to. For whatever reason, including my upbringing, I travel because I enjoy it. I travel because I can. The issue as to why I should do it is a doubt I’m yet to resolve, except that, as a journalist by trade, an awareness of my audience, an impulse towards reach, accessibility and, most importantly, translate-ability is always a priority. In coming from neither a literary nor an academic background, and being trained to reach people outside of a highly specialised field, a project like SINB and its various forms is my attempt at expanding this reach, however marginally, into places I’ve never been.
Somewhere I’ve Never Been is to be published by TLTRPreß, Berlin and Pool, London in May, 2017.
1. Carl Wilson, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2007), 39.
2. Philip Bell and Roger Bell, ‘Cultural shifts, changing relationships: Australia and the United States,’ Australian Cultural History 28:2–3 (2010): 283.
3. Denis Charles Phillips and Nicholas C. Burbules, Postpositivism and Educational Research (Lanham & Boulder: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000), 3.
4. Aria Dean, ‘Wandering/WILDING: Blackness on the Internet,’ essay accompanying the Wandering/WILDING: Blackness on the Internet exhibition, London, November 4 – December 11, 2016, accessed January 9, 2017, http://www.imagemusictext.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Aria-Dean-WanderingWILDING.pdf.
6. Doris Lessing, African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe (London: HarperCollins, 1993).
7. Gayatri Spivak, ‘Can the subaltern speak?,’ in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988): 271–313.
8. Kati Stammwitz, ‘‘‘Turning the Telescope in the Other Direction’’: Four Interviews with Post-Colonial Travel Writers. Pico Iyer, Frank Delaney, Dan Jacobson, and Dervla Murphy,’ accessed January 9, 2017, http://webdoc.sub.gwdg.de/edoc/ia/eese/artic99/stamm/1_99.html.
11. Emily Witt, Future Sex (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016): 562–3.
12. Diane Lewis, ‘Anthropology and Colonialism,’ Current Anthropology 14:5 (1973): 584.
About the author:
Steph Kretowicz is a London and Los Angeles-based editor, writer and journalist specialising in music, contemporary art and digital culture. Her writing appears in Flash Art, Dazed & Confused, Resident Advisor, The Fader, and The Wire, as well as Somesuch Stories, Arcadia Missa Publishing, and Live Art Development Agency, among others. Kretowicz is also co-founder and editor of London and Berlin-based arts publication AQNB.com Website: stephkretowicz.com.