On 24 February, I attended the Quo Vadis Olympic Heritage symposium in Birmingham. I was kindly invited by Anna Woodham of the Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage and the day was an excellent opportunity to meet and listen to interesting people from a range of disciplines who work on Olympics studies and mega-events. Maurice Roche participated and responded generously to presentations.
My paper offered an attempt to think through screen landscapes through an archaeological perspective. I’m working this up into a longer publication for the Canadian journal, Public, for May. Including it here, with the proviso that it’s not fully referenced and, as such, is very much in-progress.
Many thanks for inviting me here today. Been wonderful to hear from the rich field of Olympic scholarship, to which I humbly add my voice. I am speaking to you from the discipline of film & TV but specifically as someone with a particular interest in the material culture and material landscapes of the moving image. Olympic screen media scholarship has tended to be characterized by either a representationalist approach that sees media narratives and technologies as signifying the coercive control of the state and corporate interests through increasingly hyperbolic spectacles and surveillance or has adopted a Foucaultian consideration of the ways in which media iteratively mark and perform bodies (human and non-human), thus sedimenting ‘innocent’ matter with systems of knowledge.
But, to paraphrase John David Rhodes and Elena Gorfinkel, Olympic moving images and their associated large and small screen manifestations in the city take place. And yet, it is screen media’s role in place-making that has been largely left unexplored by scholars across the interdisciplinary field of Olympic studies.
Despite the histories of the Olympic Games that discuss the mega-event as an urban and global growth engine and as a hotbed of technological testing, from the earliest television broadcasts in 1936 to the first use of a full stadium floor projection mapping at Vancouver 2010, the cities themselves slip away under grand narratives of progress or ideology. I am interested, instead, in how screen media practices enact the Olympic city. How do Olympic cities project their cultures, heritage and histories into the future via ubiquitous screen technologies and in what ways might this be thought through as a spatial practice?
The ubiquity of Olympic screens is central to understanding the multiple scales of local specificities and global flows that the Games manifest. Where Olympic media scholarship perhaps questions power, representation and ideology, I want to invite us to think about how screen images and objects participate in the specific performances of Olympic cities. In the time I have this afternoon, I want to look at a couple of examples from Vancouver 2010 & London 2012 to argue that an attention to the intra-active agencies of Olympic screens contributes insights into how mega-events organise spatial relations through temporary assemblages of screens and other bodies. In doing this, I suggest that an archaeological account of the screens that perform the Olympic event – an archaeology on as well as of screen – can open up critical spaces that locate screen practices as key to understanding shifting forms of newer global urbanisms.
But what do I mean by archaeology here? This has become such a confusing term. Michel Foucault’s use of archaeology as an opposition to historiography – to the disruptions of the material and the discursive that trouble linear histories – is an obvious reference point. But in my work, as I come from an archaeology background, I do, actually, mean archaeology. Perhaps not the digging kind, but certainly of the landscape variety. Anthropologlist, Tim Ingold’s, definition of landscape as “the world as it is known to those who dwell therein, who inhabit its places and journey along the paths connecting them”, is perhaps helpful here. In common with geographers, archaeologists argue that space is not a neutral receiver of human action but rather a meaningful medium for, and product of, human action. It is an unfolding entanglement of human and more than human actors. Tracing sharp boundaries along disciplinary lines is always problematic, so in my case, I am interested in what approaching the city scapes of urban screens and Olympic moving image via the languages and observational practices of archaeology can add to the conversation.
This kind of work draws on Karen Barad’s ideas (2007, Meeting the Universe Halfway, Duke University Press) around agential realism and seeks to understand intra-acting things-in-phenomena as co-productive of what comes to be fixed. How does matter, in its specific material formations – as bodies, artefacts and objects – come together with actions, doings and practices in the world and with abstracted norms, ideals and regulatory regimes of discourse?
Neither human nor non-human matter is fixed, awaiting either decoding or mark-making. Instead, all matter enacts fixity through analytical assemblages or apparatuses comprising, to take the London 2010 Opening Ceremony as an example, large numbers of people with diverse institutional and creative roles, construction companies, event specialists, volunteer audiences, transport infrastructures, the local people of Stratford working at Westfield and in the confection kiosks in the Olympic Park, sheep, turf, weather conditions, motorized outdoor broadcast cameras strung up on cables, cloud kites, hash tags. Decisions along the way, by artistic director or by the desires of sheep or by the PR companies, all contribute towards what emerges out of the multiplicity as the individuated event.
But how to account for this? Methods borrowed from archaeology can provide the Olympics scholar with methods of abundance. This archaeological discipline of things looks at traces, assembles material evidence and aexplores intra-actions, the lively encounters across and within material actors – human and non. Archaeology can move us beyond the binary of the mega-event as either an aggressive tool deployed by neoliberal capitalism or a ‘natural’ stage upon which to enact technological innovation and the increasingly cyborgian yet emancipated spectator-performer. It provides a method for understanding the Olympics as material-discursive practice – as a form of worlding the world.
Focus on the media-city is not, however, new. Scott McQuire’s media-city ‘emerges through a complex process of co-constitution between architectural structures and urban territories, social practices and media feedback (2008: vii) while Johan Fornas has argued that ‘cities are from the start mediated as well as mediating machines, and media always-already co-construct urban settings (2006: 9). Zlatan Krajina (2009) adds detail to this media city and describes it as comprising:
public display media that either convey information (news and transport information overlays), allow exchange of information (street kiosks), advertise (billboards), or serve architectural design (media façades) or public art (installation screens), all in a number of forms (textual information, moving or still images), and in variable scale. (403)
Yet, it’s the intra-acting material-discursive boundary making practices – the phenomena – in which screens are bound up that produce these taxonomies. Screens are agents within this process rather than being either passive objects upon which those categories are written or meditational technologies between matter and meaning. With that, I’ll turn to some examples.
In Ambient Television, Anna McCarthy invites her reader to consider the spatialising of urban screens in terms of the spectator positions that we are invited to occupy. We seem to see this in these images… Yet, is that all that’s going on? In an interview with Marc Chan of Performance Visual Works, one of a team of companies responsible for screen projection at Robson Square for Vancouver 2010, I was told that they provided 7mm pixel pitch LED outdoor screens + used large space audio coverage designed to ensure intelligibility of speech and commentary. Decisions made on basis of value for money, contractual relationships, quality, fitness to site. Permits, permissions, risk assessment for large-crowd gatherings, provincial & civic regulation, structural and electrical engineers. Performance Visual Works was responsible for entire permissions workflow, from Letter of Intent through to 3rd party disclosures and applications for permits. Governed by regulation around temporary signage, temporary structure and temporary electrical by laws. Scaffolding, cabling and anchors, screen materials etc were all chosen to fit in with the environment. However, decisions about individual components – counter-weights, cabling, scaffolding, screen material – are co-produced through existing local safety standards and regulatory frameworks, aesthetics, and availability. Considering these asseblages in the terms of landscape archaeology allows me to consider the intra-action of these diverse elements and their enactment of regulation and moves the analysis of Olympic screens away from the representational and towards seeing these structures as themselves part of Olympic heritage.
Acting archaeologically allows me to assemble the ways in which the performances of media technologies and image-objects sit alongside human bodies as constitutive of the event. Take the opening ceremonies.
Where scholarship here has often focused on the performance of national heritage as hegemonic (or, in the case of London, as counter-hegemonic) ideology, the overt performance of technology has remained under-explored. Opening ceremonies at Turin, London, Sochi all staged their nation’s contributions to historical media innovations. And since Vancouver 2010, the stadium floor itself has become a screen performer through the intensive use of projection mapping.
Successive ceremonies have heightened the overt choreographies of cameras, with elaborate cabling structures for multiple motorized cameras, remote control blimp cams, cameras on multiple tracks, etc. Where previously this apparatus would be rendered invisible, these technologies are now staged and foregrounded.
(watch from 20″)
In the sporting events themselves, cameras run alongside bodies and are shown. Look at the camera on screen, in your field of vision. This is a deliberate staging of the newest technologies – Olympic coverage involves R & D teams speaking to one another, Outside Broadscast units speaking to the IOC with an eye on landing the next Olympic contract. And there’s also accident – switching camera feeds too quickly or not quickly enough. The track and the moving camera that appear to the lower left of the screen. There’s also the difference between these technologies as experienced in the live event and how we see them on TV or ambient screens, on our phones and via the internet.
Tracing infrastructures is perhaps the most conventionally archaeological approach to Olympic city screens. Returning to Olympic sites produces new understandings of the ongoing enactment of the event in and through the urban landscape. New developments spring up in the wake of screen sites, providing material evidence for the entwining of Olympic events and urban regeneration.
Fencing and cordoned off spaces in parks point towards the impact on plant life that the congregations at live sites mixed with rainy weather produces. Trees are fenced in to prevent further root damage. Batallions of jcbs, workers and seeders attempt to reshape the land. Maps show areas of planting, which perform the Olympic live site territory. And signage is produced to explain all of this and, ultimately, to propel the screens and the Olympic mega-event as an assemblage in to the future. Fresh asphalt fills in the holes left by the removal of network and screen infrastructure and provides a different sense of the weightiness of temporary Olympic structures.
This archaeological record of the Olympics is a significant part of is heritage legacy. By attempting a more abundant methodology that tries to measure out the extent of the Olympics through these kinds of distributed material-discursivities – rather than delimiting the Olympics solely through its clearly identifiable monumental landscapes – I can begin to chart the specificities of screen media materialities that come to enact the Games. These aren’t generic ‘screens’, but actual artefacts that are bound up in the worlding of the world. Olympic screen media – to use that shorthand – are multiple, diverse intra-acting agents that operate to produce fixity in the world but are never fixed themselves.
To conclude, neither a representationalist approach that seeks to understand the Olympic city through what its attending moving images or its media systems signify nor a Foucauldian archaeology that requires some innocent material ground that is marked with the text adequately opens up the possibility for thinking anew about the mega-event. Instead, an archaeological set of methods, focused on assemblages of things-in-phenomena, invites us to consider complex intra-actions of images, objects, technologies, audiences, screens, cameras, spectacles that together co-produce the Olympic urban landscape.
Where next? Well, I would love to begin discussing the cities that emerge and are produced through the aerial shots and B-roll montages that are held on servers and called up by broadcasters during the event. I also think that more work can be done on the regulatory structures that are produced and negotiated through the irruption of new media technologies in the Olympics, which connects this research to studies of advertising and media architectures of the great European cities of the early 20th Century. Also, what about all the additional footage projected on large screens that cut through the built environment? How does the Olympic mega-event produce different? How are these large-scale projections different from but related to the increasing mediatisation of city landscapes full stop? But these are other stories. I hope in this paper that the few examples I’ve discussed begin to point towards the value of archaeological methods for the study of screen media generally and for a new accounting of the media mega event.