Édition #4

“Dear Lake…”Detecting the territory’s sensitive signalsthrough love letters

Hélène MICHEL Professor of Gamification & Innovation at Grenoble École de Management
The pandemic, climate change and geopolitical tensions are forcing tourism to reinvent itself. The development of staycations (local tourism) or the emergence of microadventures (short term adventures close to home) are examples of this. But how can we study the changes in the territory and capture sensitive signals that traditional methods – such as interviews, questionnaires or even ethnography – do not reveal?

With the backing of the Territoires en Transition Chair at Grenoble’s Management School, I created the Fabularium, an experimental device in the form of a spectacular object. This nomadic office and its typewriter allow me to go out and meet people and collect love letters to the region. In June 2020, at the end of the first lockdown, I walked, cycled, hitchhiked and even paraglided through the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region for 7 days with this device, to meet people.

I collected 70 intimate letters to the territory1. They are funny, poetic and moving, addressed to a lake, a lock, a city or a tree. Letters of regret, fidelity, complaint or break-ups, they all raise questions about the territory and its accessibility, its symbolism, its risk of commodification or even how it can be protected. The letters that we analysed provide sensitive signals for the tourism players and decision-makers.

«70 personal letters to the territory were collected. Funny, poetic and moving, they are sometimes addressed to a lake, a lock, a city or a tree.»


Arming for research: the revival of scientific experiments

During summer 2019, as part of the MarchAlp (Armed march in the Alps) project, researchers from Grenoble travelled part of the Alps to cross the Italian border in armour. They were conducting a scientific experiment to measure the efforts made by the soldiers of the French army in 1515, a month before they won the battle of Marignano. These new scientific experiments emerge in very different forms, and with all the questions of validity that they raise, but also with the breath of fresh air and renewal that they bring. So how can we study the territory and its transformations without going into the field ourselves, according to the very principles of what we are studying?


Personifying an object gives substance to an issue that is often perceived as purely technical or financial. For example, marketing researchers (Kreziak et al. 2016) carried out a study on consumers’ decision to renew their mobile phones by having them write break-up letters.
Introducing emotion allows us to access another register and reveal new signals. With the Fabularium, we suggested that participants write declarations to the territory or to one of its elements (a lock, a tree, a bridge, a funicular, etc.) in the form of love letters, break-up letters, letters of regret, “Don’t leave me” letters, etc.”.


This epistolary approach echoes the work of the artist Sophie Calle (2007), particularly in her work “Take care of yourself”. A break-up letter received by the artist is analysed and dissected by 107 women with very different profiles. The work we are going to carry out therefore aims to collect sensitive material produced by passers-by, “non-experts”, according to an open innovation approach. It is about capturing an
emotion in an almost intimate relationship. Moreover, this is a qualitative exploratory approach, which will not be measured by the number of letters, but by the weak and sensitive signals that they will bring out.  We will link these letters to theoretical questions and concepts on the region and its transformations.


Elyssa Shalla, a park ranger in the Grand Canyon conducted an experiment in 2018: she set up an old typewriter at a viewpoint reached after a ten kilometre hike “to see what would happen…”. In three days, 76 messages were collected. Elyssa Shalla’s conclusion: “We need to create more opportunities for people to stop, think and feel at the same time, and then give them a way to share their experience”. This frugal, one-off experience allowed walkers to interact and contribute by leaving a trace. It was confined to a single location, a single viewpoint, on a site that was already extremely well known and frequented. As it stood, the experiment’s reproducibility and the use of the material collected were limited. How could a generally applicable experimentation system be proposed?


For this, we needed a spectacular office that could be carried on your back, like the old-time peddlers in the Alps. It had to be able to stand alone and resist the elements. This was how the Fabularium came to be! As early as 1837, from his cabin deep in the Massachusetts woods, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his diary: “What I have begun by reading, I must finish by doing”. In June 2020, I left my flat in Chambéry (Savoie) to ride a circuit with my bike, a trailer and the Fabularium. I identified 7 places to collect love letters to the region: by water, along a river and by a lock, in a forest, at the top of an urban and/or natural panorama…, so that there would be a diversity of viewpoints of the region. As the constraints of elevation difference and meeting people increased, I found myself recruiting a peddler through a job offer on LinkedIn, hitching a ride with my office and even taking a paraglider flight to get some height!

On the shores of Lake Aiguebelette in Savoie, the Fabularium was set up on a pontoon between two fishermen’s boats, at mooring 73. This small port with its jetty is a main access point to the lake. It is where
the fishermen moor their boats, where you launch your canoe and where you come to admire the lake. It is also one of the only places where there is access to the lake free of charge, as all the beaches or  pontoons are private or charge a fee. Research on walking and creativity shows that spending time in green spaces renews the mental resources depleted by man-made environments (cities, cars, etc.). Water, in particular, whether in a pond or a river, revives our attention span (Berman et al, 2008). Here are three letters written on the shore of the lake.


The first to write was a 47-year-old man who came to go canoeing with his daughter. The teenager was grumbling and dragging her feet. They live near another lake. She couldn’t see why she had to travel 30
km to this one… He had his reasons. He wrote, unperturbed by her sighs. He left with a smile. She didn’t read the letter. I did, just after. And despite the heat, I couldn’t go swimming afterwards. I would have felt like I was violating an intimate experience: “Dear Lake Aiguebelette, I’m writing you this letter to tell you that I will always be faithful to you. I have known you for 47 years and I really think you are one of my most loyal friends. In your turquoise waters lie the ashes of my grandparents, André and Christiane. So, every time I enjoy bathing in your waters, I feel as if I am in communion with them (…). Damien”.

« Dear paddleboard, for some years now you have been sharing my solitude, which actually, on this beautiful lake, is a great feeling of freedom…»

Sensitive signal: does the territory have a dress code?

How can we manage to open up like that, in just a few minutes, in such a busy place? When we look at the photos, we realise that the man is the only adult to have written in a swimming costume. Is this what it means to “bare yourself”? For Leveratto (2006), our clothes play the role of a “second skin, symbolically expressing the socialisation of the human body, through its subordination to certain social codes”. Do we write, create or interact differently depending on how we are dressed? Studies show that we take on the role assigned to our artefacts, costumes or uniforms and that this also changes the nature of our interactions with the environment (Yee and Bailenson, 2007). Drawing on this thread: Could a territory have, not a piece of clothing, but a dress code? In other words, a set of signs that allow us to be part of  it, or on the contrary, to stand out from it. In Australia’s northern territories, there is a dress code known as the ‘Territory Rig’ or ‘Darwin Rig’: For men, it is trousers with a long-sleeved shirt and tie, and for women, a semi-formal, mid-length dress called an “after five”. In the Grenoble region, sports or mountain wear (North Face, Quechua…) is socially acceptable in the city and even at work, as a marker of territorial identity.


There were also these four young girls, aged around 22 or 23, from a suburb of Lyon: four young girls from the Cité des Lumières who came here to enjoy a moment together… As students with limited income, paying to put their feet in the water is not an option. Delighted at the idea of enjoying this idyllic setting, they stopped at the sight of the ducks and water lilies. Blandine, Cha’, Claire and Luna. Childhood friends, “since primary school!” all four of them are now students in different fields: political science, speech therapy, psychology and sociology. And they were looking for some water. On their way back from a girls’ weekend in the region, they had stopped to enjoy a last swim in the lake before returning to everyday life. But there is no access to the lake without paying or scraping their knees on the rocks. They were dismayed. No way would they pay to go for a swim! They settled down at the end of the small beach to finish the remains of the weekend picnic while contemplating this untouchable water, a little dispirited. The magic of the weekend was tarnished. There were only crumbs left. I suggested they write a complaint letter to the lake. And since the water was forbidden to them, why not ban the letter ‘O’ (O=eau=water) from their text? They came back to life! Who is going to write it? Should we sign it? Ok for no ‘O’. When they left, they were the ones who thanked me. Revenge by letter.

Sensitive signal: converting constraint into opportunity

This approach echoes the novel “La Disparition” written by Georges Perec without using the letter “E”. Using constraint as a tool for creativity is the commitment of the surrealist, inventive and innovative  literature group OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle – Workshop of Potential Literature). The founding members liked to describe themselves as “rats who build the very labyrinth from which they propose to escape.”. What would an OuTePo, Ouvroir de Territoire Potentiel (Workshop of Potential Territory) look like, playing with the constraints of the territory, or even adding to them, to generate new
experiences? Because in the end, it is the “almost perfect trip” that we remember the best… (Urbain, 2008). Like, for example, “Mud Days” (obstacle races in mud), or “Mad Jacques”, a race where participants have to hitchhike to the heart of the Creuse department… This letter raises a fundamental question: Is nature a common possession? And on the same lines: can it be privatised or even commercialised? How can it be accessed? Diversion strategies exist, using “companions” or intermediate objects.


Then there was a 57-year-old woman who came from the neighbouring town. Her children are grown up and she now lives on her own. Although she travels abroad with friends from time to time (to Sicily and Italy in particular), she has rediscovered the lake near her home thanks to a companion object: her paddleboard. ” Dear paddleboard, for some years now you have been sharing my solitude, which actually, on this beautiful lake, is a great feeling of freedom… The cows come to visit us when we picnic by the water. You take me to places I can’t reach! Nature is beautiful, the colour of the water incredible! Lockdown has increased the duck families and the water lilies are magnificent. I’ve been on many beautiful trips, but thanks to you, I’m rediscovering our beautiful region and this magnificent lake! Thank you for
this beautiful trip!”.

Sensitive signal: the role of intermediate objects

Anthropomorphising a territory (such as a lake) or an object (like a canoe, a paddleboard or a fishing rod) by considering it as a human, requires recognising its qualities and accepting its otherness. Slipping into their skin (in this case their water, land or plastic) helps us to understand their behaviour and even predict their reactions, and makes us define the framework of our relations with them. Anthropomorphism thus becomes a huge place to play and experiment, a new form of land-use planning. This letter also highlights the role of adjuvants – companions of adventure or intermediate objects with an almost magical connotation – in the re-conquest of the territory. Whether living or inanimate, these play the role of a means of locomotion (bicycle, horse, paddleboard), or a tool (fishing rod, knife), as well as a means of interaction (walking one’s dog), or even of social recognition. Post-lockdown, when access to the lake and its beaches remained forbidden for several weeks, except for “dynamic” use, people descended on the local shops and rental companies for their paddleboards and canoes. Appropriating, or even diverting the rule, therefore gave rise to practices. To each territory its adjuvants: In what context, for what quest, does this need for companions of adventure emerge? In what situation are they personal or shared? Bought, rented or made available?


The desk and the machine, which are totally incongruous in this location, became spectacular objects, offering a desynchronisation and a pleasurable shift. In this magic circle of play (Huizinga, 1938), participants feel protected. Once absorbed in the flow (Csíkszentmihályi, 1990), they plunge into their activity with a maximum state of concentration, commitment… and satisfaction. In fact, even if no one wanted to keep their letter or take a photo of it, all the writers thanked me for this revealing experience. For a researcher, who sometimes struggles to collect data in the form of questionnaires, interviews or even ethnography, this is a completely new type of interaction with her field. For tourism and development players, these letters represent rich and original material for taking a territory’s pulse. They bring out other readings of a situation or raise questions in a different way. This can be particularly beneficial when an area is under pressure (with constrained resources or conflicts of use, for example) for understanding the situation from a completely new angle. The Fabularium has since been invited to the Roya Valley following storm Alex, to a construction site for new housing in an urban area and to an amphitheatre that was abandoned for a long time during the pandemic. A map is not a territory. That is true. But could a letter be?



1These letters are presented or read by their authors on: www.fabularium.fr
Kreziak D., Prim-Allaz I., Robinot E., Durif F. (2016), Obsolescence perçue, décision de renouveler et destinée des produits : le cas du téléphone portable, Décisions Marketing, Association Française du Marketing, pp.41-59.
Calle Sophie (2007), Prenez soin de vous, Actes Sud. Yee N., Bailenson J.(2007), The Proteus Effect: The Effect of Transformed Self- Representation on Behavior, Human Communication Research. 33 (3): –90.
Urbain J.H. (2008), Le voyage était presque parfait, Essai sur les voyages ratés, Payot.
Huizinga J. (1938), Homo Ludens – Essai sur la fonction sociale du jeu.
Csíkszentmihályi M. (1990), Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Harper & Row.

A teacher-researcher in innovation management at Grenoble École de Management. Within the framework of the “Territoires en Transition” Chair, she analyses tourism phenomena such as micro-adventures or staycations. She created the “Fabularium” poetic device to carry out life-size research.