Conference Paper: Curatorial Interference and Online Fandom at Graceland

Presented at the FSN Conference, Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, December 2019.

Production and consumption of fan spaces in the online world is dramatically changing the ways in which fans participate within the tourism community (Searles and Lester, 2016: 1). This chapter explores this concept, building upon my conference presentation in its examination of the self-guided an online experience of Elvis Presley’s Graceland. Specifically, my focus is on how fan encounters (on and off-line) impact on and influence fan understandings of the Graceland site. This is not only relative in relation to their fandom, but to how Elvis is constructed and understood as a historically significant figure. Graceland has been chosen for its status as a site of fan pilgrimage along with the fact that it incorporates online and real-life encounters to create a fully immersive experience for fans. Its precarious status as historical site and as setting for a celebrity narrative of Elvis as pop-culture icon also prompts us to question the role of curatorial authority in mediating fan encounters, raising questions around the necessity of creating authenticity in the fan space.

I draw on the scholarship of Karal Anne Marling, which discusses the curated version of Elvis that is communicated through the Graceland mansion as tourist attraction, and the issues associated with its dubious role as fan commodity and historical site. Marling’s work, written when Graceland was initially opened to the public, is further valuable to an analysis of how the tour experience has changed, while also highlighting the static Elvis image and its role in the fan experience. I consider the subsequent inclusion of the audio tour, which allows guests to experience the site at their own pace and thus to create highly personalised narratives which intimately connect to their individual experience as Elvis fans. This will be read in conjunction with contemporary scholarship which examines para-social relationships between fans and celebrity figures. Whilst many of these studies are written specifically in relation to living celebrities and their engagement with fans via online platforms, the themes discussed are also applicable to the consideration of how the image of Elvis is mediated through the various forms of media that are employed for fan interactions on his behalf. These, I suggest, are damaging to the fan experience because they are moderated to appear so lifelike.

In contrast to the audio tour, Graceland-cam provides a very different experience than the immersive act of visiting Graceland. At times of significance, such as during Elvis week, this technology invites fan participation without necessitating a physical presence at the site. Encountering Elvis from the comfort of one’s own home, which may be located at significant distance from the geographical location of the site, digitizes the historical sensation of being there, and in doing so creates a fractured sense of authenticity. In addition, because the cameras which feed the live stream are so closely monitored by site curators, the fan experience is influenced in accordance with cultural ideas about Elvis rather than Elvis himself.

The methodology of my research is qualitative, drawing on the real-time footage from Graceland-cam which will be used to form the framework for my discussion on how the audience interaction with Elvis is mediated in the online realm. In addition, it is used to discuss how the fan visiting in real-life becomes an unwitting and perhaps unaware accessory to this online experience. The camera feed at Graceland runs uninterrupted and thus, frequently depicts visitors making their way through the grounds and encountering their own idea of Elvis. This in itself has been curated in accordance with the image of Elvis which Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE) has decided to portray. Far from embracing Elvis as a historic and flawed person, this view embraces thematic elements of his celebrity which fans show a connection to, discounting elements of his history which are at odds with contemporary concepts of appropriateness. Fan encounters which take place through the lens of Graceland-cam are thus diluted by the conscious curation of EPE but also influenced by the responses of other fans, whom they see interacting with the mediated site in person and in real time. Additional source material will be drawn from a range of contemporary research concerned with fandom in the online world and the experience of interacting with celebrities across varying forms of social media.

References:

Scarles, Caroline and Jo-Anne Lester. (2016). Mediating the Tourist Experience: From Brochures to Virtual Encounters. London: Routledge.

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