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People are staring!

10 of October '22

A column from the07-08/2022 issue of A&B

Recently, a journalist friend posted a post on her feebu account about a situation she witnessed, nay, witnessed. Well, after a group yoga exercise she was participating in, she saw a girl approach a boy, saying the following (if I remember correctly): "Don't we, so that we don't know each other from somewhere, because you stare at me like that all the time?".

The man's reaction was omitted from the description, although I can guess that it was consternation, or "good old" embarrassment laced with a reddened brow. The journalist commented on the incident in the tone of "ha, but she got along with the shameless man!".

Ot, a little genre scene straight from inside the bubble of the carefree metropolitan middle class, one would think. They're about to talk about types of vegetable milk for flat white. In the meantime, since visual culture in the broadest sense of the term and its social, or moral, contexts are of keen interest to me, I have decided to take this microtransaction on the line of onlooker-gazer as a starting point for this column.

Here I will add that the column is related to the holiday issue of A&B, and anyone who has lived through the dark and cold part of the year in the North Country knows what the return of the warmer part of spring and summer means in these parts. If you're thinking "ice cream!" or "trouble with brats!" or "family vacations from which one returns more tired than going on them!", I'll reply that yes, yes, the warm season is on those topics too, but the real leitmotiv is, attention brothers and sisters: the WHOLE! And the other, inevitably, is to GAP at that body! The body being celebrated, the body being hidden, the body being exposed to the eyes of random people, but also the body being put to the eyes of very specific people. Inevitably, the body is also a projection of personality, but also shame and hypocrisy serving to impose control and neutralize corporeality. The body and staring at bodies, including completely clothed bodies, seem to be the favorite passe-temps of depraved societies. In this competition, Californians and French are most likely to win, but let's not be hypocritical, they are also Californians and French. Of course, things are a little less subtle in the American version than in the Latin version, but, well, America invented Pornhub, speed-dating and Tinder, and France invented Georges Bataille, Esparbec and ménage à trois. In both cases, the need to stare and expose oneself to the gaze of onlookers is accompanied not only by behavioral traditions, especially unwritten codes of conduct, motor skills, facial expressions and gestures, but also by layers of decorum, from the level of apparel to the "infrastructural background."

You'll ask what any of this has to do with local plans, reinforced concrete and mazes of tubes and wires, which a sizable portion of the public associates with either architecture or the subject matter of architectural writings. I'm already explaining: this background, which, like all the dimensions mentioned here, is a tool in the "staring game," is not often the work of designers. Often it is the result of the entrenchment of some practice of anonymous people, which, raised to the level of tradition and a kind of comme il faut, becomes a guideline for architects. The need to stare, for example, is the tradition of placing chairs along and with their backs to the facade of a bar, usually a corner one, in any French city with 19th-century buildings. Regardless of whether the bar has a wider space for more rows of tables, it is usually the row along the wall that is most important and most heavily occupied. Why? Because people who individually or in pairs sit facing the street gain a convenient place to watch their neighbors. So old bachelors and passionate widows sip their morning espressos from their chairs at the swarthy divas or at the leisurely sailors straight from a cruise. Pairs of blasé consortes will lazily comment on whatever they can, from a teenage girl's inept meerkat to a neighbor's beer belly. It's in this row, often curved along the rounded corner of two tenement elevations, that aesthetic norms are fleshed out and confronted by the street, or the outside world, which brings in mainstream fashions and subcultures and allows us to shamelessly peek not only into the cleavages but also into the lives of other homo sapiens parading for us and in front of us. What's noteworthy is that right after we get up from our table, leave a garçon tip and step onto the sidewalk, we ourselves become subjects, or perhaps objects, of the gaze of the people on the café terraces. Then, unconsciously or just very consciously, like true flâneurs, we will present our charms to the world, unhurriedly strolling around in clothing that represents our tastes, personality, social status and beliefs. And all around us the staffage will be the buildings of the appropriate neighborhood in which to be seen. Every glorieta, pilaster and ornate gate will tell observers that they are the backdrop to our glamorous existence. Throughout the scene, bourgeois qualities will rule: elegance (luxe), discretion (calme) and harmonious completeness (volupté). And then, of course, there's hypocrisy, because we need some form of cushion to protect us from the dilemmas arising from adherence to double if not multiple standards of morality stretched somewhere between the private and public spheres.

In the U.S. version, the legitimate space for "exhibitionism" and stargazing is especially the boulevards or wide sidewalks stretching along the beaches in California's Venice, Santa Monica and Brazil's Copacabana. The relationship is built between three linear platforms: the beach, the sidewalk and the street. The street allows slow observation from the decks of slow-moving vehicles, often ostentatious and also serving to attract the attention of passersby and beachgoers/beachgoers. The sidewalk, often wide and lined with greenery, preferably tall and with narrow, non-blocking trunks (I recommend imperial palms) is the space of working-class flâneurs. Due to the distance from the beach and the eyes of driving motorists, impulses here must be much stronger than on a Parisian sidewalk. Here we are already in the logic of "Learning from Las Vegas": whatever happens along the space that the cars drive must be subject to the perceptual capabilities of the people sitting in them. Even if half the cars are devoid of roofs that narrow the field of vision. Every sun-fried perfect buttock, oil-glossed and barely confined bikini breast or taut biceps of a beach bodybuilder (not to mention the contents of his g-string) is the equivalent of the totems erected along highways. Only that instead of informing us that we are approaching a gas station or fast-food joint, they inform us of the possibility of flirting, maybe even targeted copulation, and in the light version they invite contemplation, because after all, nothing works so well on human shapes as being licked by other people's eyes.

The sidewalk is a space for showing off, going further than just flirtatiously parading around in negligee, usually festooned with additional, albeit pretextual, garments, if only in the form of sabrinka jeans (this reminds me that I need to get myself such jeans before the season, though being careful of scrotum prolapse). A veritable circus of expression thrives on the boulevard with skaters, mimes, street musicians and break-dancers filmed with cell phones by gawkers and professional tiktokers. This is where street fashions are created, which, with a lot of luck, will go further into the world for us to enjoy a year later on the beach in Miedzyzdroje, but also trends are created that could potentially become aesthetic signs of the era, like MC Hammer's marbled sarees.

Now we come to the clou of the program, that is, the beach itself. If we are dealing with a wide beach, we can see several types of activity, only some of which are innocent "just" activities, and most of which stem from the need to be seen/seen. Besides, both rudimentary sunbathing with a transistor radio by one's side (the middle strip of the beach), playing volleyball (the strip by the sidewalk), and the way to and from the water are not without the potential for public manifestation. Every breath, belly pull and hair movement can make us look like the images seen in the media. Stepping on the wet sand, we thus turn into Pamela Anderson or David Hasselhoff, although most of us are not the images, or even the images emitting professional actors. Well, and here comes another dimension to the story, as we are no longer in the 19th century, or even in the 20th. We live in a global society of the spectacle, the existence of which was made clear to us with his book by Guy Debord, who already in the late 1980s described the relationship between visual culture, the development of ubiquitous media and space, especially urban space. Spectacle has since gained intensity and acceleration due to the availability of individual tools for "immortalizing" and disseminating images. Mainly due to the invention of the Internet, mobile phones equipped with more and more cameras and social media. This set of achievements of American technical thought (DARPA, IBM, Motorola, FB and related) has given millions of teenage girls around the world the opportunity to confirm the meaningfulness of their existence by taking dozens of selfies a day, which they can and necessarily must share with the world. This is also done, by the way, by respectable fathers of families, photographing every dish in a restaurant while on vacation, and matrons immortalizing every angelic dimple of their children. And so, on the beach, this spectacle meets seasonal "beach culture," whose tools also include artifacts such as outdoor showers, sets of gymnastics and fitness equipment and straw-covered chiringuitos. These tabernacles invariably emanate an exoticism meant to signal the happiness resulting from a trip to the sun, to which the masses of northerners have been subjected since the brilliant invention of Thomas Cook, who invented railroad round-trips (train ticket plus lodging plus food) in the 1840s. In Cook's time, however, such bars should have had a decor à la Ancient Egypt, as the first overseas tours he organized went to Egypt conquered by the British Crown. In the version of the era of popularization of television, it will be, for a change, the style of kula modern, a construct on the theme of Hawaiianness, somewhat analogous to our style of Zakopane. It was in hotels, mansions and bars decorated with balls of wood carved with totemic masks that the ladies in the following films were charmed by the unforgettable Elvis clad in a flowered aloha shirt. Gee, I wish I could live like that!

With the right amount of development located on the other side of the road, there is a meeting of "Parisian" and "Californian" logic in many coastal towns and parts of river towns. Italian towns in particular excel in this meeting. The car fetish took hold for good in Italy during the era of post-war economic growth and the spread of mechanical devices produced by the local industry in the 1950s and 1960s. It was then that, thanks to the Marshall Plan, brands that had begun their life back in Mussolini's time were able to serve the wealthy middle class and even the working class. From Bianchi bicycles and Vespa scooters to the Fiat 500 and luxury cars from Ferrari or Maserati. So the streets were filled with embodiments of dreams and evidence of their fulfillment in the form of all sorts of vehicles, in and on which gelled boys and maids in pea-colored dresses à la Gina Lollobrigida could do what Italians do best (pardon the Renaissance masters!): spangle. Italians became modern centaurs attached to horsepower. This created another category of performance taking place in a space that was the edge of a roadway and a cafe terrace. With it came the whole choreography of pulling up, parking, removing one's helmet or sticking one's legs out of the convertible, sitting down on the terrace, preferably shaded and overlooking the machine one had just arrived on. It is to the Italians that we owe the motorcycles of the café racer type created to take off from under the saloon with a huff (or, if you prefer, a terrible fart). Of course, it should be noted that the Americans had all this too, but the Italians had it molto piú bello.

Well, what do we have? We have our language, for we are not geese after all. Unfortunately, I'm joking: trying to search my memory for any originally Polish elements of visual culture related to staring and being stared at, I can't think of anything except an old woman gawking at the street, leaning against a pillow in the window. Even the unfortunate voyeurism of parishioners by parishioners (and vice versa) also takes place in other countries and churches of various denominations. Well, except maybe in some Arab countries, where strict separation of the sexes is in force. Scrutinizing one's neighbors while shopping at the bazaar will also be seen anywhere in the world, including the unfortunate Wuhan market. We even have French bistrot, Italian café racers and beaches, although here it's a bit more original due to the native "screen culture."

Oh, and after all, we have our Polish yoga, where we can, if no one catches us, peep at people in strange positions. Imagine all those impossibly bent bodies in colorful spandex outfits, ribs and skinny pubic bones drawing under the skin, fat prucles and faces red from exertion of people frozen in some very demanding asana. What a feast for the eyes! I think I'll follow a journalist friend's suggestion and sign up for yoga after all.

Jakub Szczęsny

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