Unveiling Manli Travel Company
Manli Travel Company is a fictional travel agency that provides virtual traveling services. Observing the emerging trend of posting and sharing tourist photos from Chinese social media platforms, we wondered how social media alters the purpose of traveling today. It seems to us that in the age of social media, documentation of travel has come to supersede the experience of travel itself. This project presents a satirical depiction of our observation of the phenomenon originating from Chinese Internet culture, specifically people’s digital presentations on social media. Initially the first stage of this project was set to be a photo booth experience that let users “travel virtually” through taking green screen selfies, however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic situation, the form is now shifted from physical installation to the digital social platform Instagram. Instead of actually traveling around, we invite users to “travel” by using the filters provided by our account @manlitravelcompany. Users are encouraged to document their travel experiences, including taking selfies or videos to pretend going on picnics at different locations around the world, posing with backgrounds filled with essential travel phrases, and justify their “travel experiences” through reposting.
The action of photo taking as a part of the traveling experience has existed ever since tourism and recreational travel became available to the general public in China during the late 1980s. Among all types of photos and documentations, tourist selfies have become a representation of the “tourist gaze” – not only documenting the location but also self-presentation. With the increasing usage of social media, this action has evolved and continued to redefine the purpose and meaning of traveling in the digital age. We’ve looked into selected examples of travel photos on popular Chinese social media platform 小红书 (RED). Through searching specific keywords including “#旅游自拍” (“travel selfie”) and “#网红景点” (“‘wanghong’ attractions”) on 小红书 (RED), we identified some typical characteristics of the selected sample travel photos. Most of the images have been edited with photo-editing apps to fit a specific style. Common editing styles include saturated colors, dreamy filters, noise that simulates analog photography effects. The purpose for people to post on social media platforms includes something more than documenting one’s experience at a place, and the focus is on showing and sharing it to their friends or followers or a larger community. The context of those posts often implies a sense of well being with their carefully adjusted presentations. Additionally, the trend has also influenced actual physical places. Taking and posting travel photos has developed a social and cultural effect on places that heavily rely on tourism. Examples including Zhangzhou Volcanic Island Resort (fig.1) in Fujian and Hua Sheng Yuan Dream Castle (fig.2) in Chongqing are built as “wanghong” tourist attractions – not as originals but replicas, in the hope of receiving similar popularity and digital exposure over social media as the original scenic spots.
These research samples we found on social media suggest how traveling has evolved along with the ever changing Internet culture. Since sharing photos has become one of the top priorities, the motivation and reason why people travel has changed completely. Easy-to-access digital tools help reshape the travel experience into a hybrid of actual physical experience and documenting the experience. Compared with travel photos in the past, instead of ending up in family albums, the digitally documented results are often shared (sometimes instantly) to the Internet and encounter a much larger group of viewers. All of these led us to the question: what if we further exaggerate these characteristics to the point that flattens the whole travel process? Or in other words, see the images as traveling itself?
The pandemic situation pushed us to a fully digital form of presentation. We are now branding Manli as a real business account on Instagram. The transition was smooth with an existing account operated by our collaborators. Precedents like Excellences & Perfections (2014) by Amalia Ulman and Photo Fake project (2014) by Zilla van den Born provided some inspiration and guidance for our shift from onsite to online.
Switching from physical installation to Instagram filters, we managed to maintain a focus on active participation and interaction of users. The first stage of this project can be broken down into 3 parts. The main service is operated through weekly published Instagram filters with specific themes related to traveling. Users are encouraged to take selfies and videos and share with us. Prior to each release, promotional materials are posted with Instagram posts announcing information about the upcoming filter. In the meantime, other regular posts consist of either photoshopped photos that take users to wherever they want to go or advertisements for shaping the company’s identity. Besides that, we also use Instagram stories to conduct user surveys and share daily inspirations related to traveling. Working with social media directly, especially on a platform that is known for photo and video sharing services, opens up this project to more potential users worldwide. Since information online fleets so quickly, for us as creators, the working process is totally different from showcasing at a gallery space. As working on social media operations has become part of this project, we tried to capture the attention of users and maintain a stable group of followers who are willing to interact with the account.
We look forward to resolving how the online platform will reach a wider audience now since it is free from the gallery restriction. With the current pandemic situation, it would be interesting to imagine the possibility of a truly virtual travel experience while still maintaining the satirical and critical core of this project. We expect Manli to be an ongoing project, and hopefully develop it in other forms including publications, zines, and physical products in the near future.