Sunday, August 17, 2008

The OC Part II: ‘Wildness’

The Opening Ceremony via Getty Images
Part 2 of ...
If the opening ceremony can be understood through the theoretical framework of the ‘mass ornament’ on the one hand (the aestheticization of the masses due to (1) the authoritarian state subordinating its individual constituents into a collective, and (2) the effects of Fordist production techniques on the psyche), on the other hand it can be said that the mass ornament was constantly contradicted and undermined through an emergent form of ‘wildness’, to borrow a term from Sanford Kwinter. While the mass ornament may be seen as the dominant technique used in the production and choreography of the OC, this ‘wildness’ maintained such a pervasive presence in the show to be recognized as a leitmotif, but a far more exciting and progressive motif because it is completely unexpected and demonstrates the surfacing of something new in Chinese society.

In the big show ‘wildness’ was demonstrated through the constant use of dissipation, gradients, waves, and swarms as a visual opposition to the strict geometrical formations of the mass ornament. The wild worked to dissolve the framework of the mass ornament into a more atomized form of expression.

The wildness first appeared during the countdown that began the show: after the drums made the figure of the number the lights would dissipate from the center outward. Later in the show it was demonstrated during the pixilated expression of the printing press segment—the rolling waves of their choreography and again the way that the letters dissolved in a random pattern rather than through a more rigid geometry.

Two other examples are the dove made from the lighted figures and the running of the tai chi demonstrators towards the end. In both, a strong formal figure (the dove and the circular formation) is contradicted by a more fluid, random expression. Of course, it could be said that these demonstrate the appearance of randomness and individuality, rather than its actual occurrence. At the very least I would like to believe that it is aspirational.

Even the Olympic architecture demonstrates a new direction in terms of freedom and expression. Nicolai Ossourouff, architecture critic of the NYTimes, writes “the National Stadium reaffirms architecture's civilizing role in a nation that, despite its outward confidence, is struggling to forge a new identity out of a maelstrom of inner conflict. HdeM have pointed out a subtle technique of subversion in the building—offering spaces within the shell that are difficult for control and surveillance—and the facades of the Water Cube and Bird’s Nest are much less rigid and authoritarian than their predecessors, the Worker’s Gymnasium and Stadium.

Swarms via Google

According to Kwinter, the “wild” is “the logic of animal societies (packs, flocks, and swarms) of the inmixings and inadvertencies of the natural world and of complex adaptive systems in general. They utilize three characteristics: intricacy, messiness, and indirectness. The last, according to Kwinter, “ is actually the secret to achieving a robust, adaptive, flexible, and evolving design…They are wild systems that range and explore and mine their environment, that capitalize on accidental successes, store them, and build upon them.

photo by Sze Tsung Leong via 'The New New City' in The New York Times

In the Chinese urban environment, the formal and informal coexist in close proximity to one another. Top down urban systems are appropriated through bottom-up mechanisms. Mario Gandelsonas has written about this in his essay “Exchange/Translation/Identity.” In speaking about the complex relationship between infrastructure and public space he writes that

“new freeways that cut through the urban fabric do not produce the ‘walls’ within the city that were created by the urban renewal of the American city. By utilizing leftover spaces for inventive public uses, such as parking for bicycles and fields for sports, they activate areas that remain quite dead in their original Western versions.”

Shuo Wang has discussed the wildness of Beijing’s urban explosion in his essay “Wild Be(ij)ing.” He states that

“In a decade, 5 million rural migrants have rushed into the city. Their new vision of the city reshaped the urban ground in an unprecedented explosive way. The largely uncontrolled economic upheavals presented its domestic urban condition as a paradigm of urban wildness that thrives against any prediction from the discipline. Beijing’s future is unpredictable; only one thing is for sure, that urban planning can never hold up the energy of constant eruptions.”

To me the ‘wild’, and its appearance in the OC, offers a positive view of the transition of Chinese culture. The wild is about self-organization—about a bottom-up, evolutionary process of becoming, and therefore contradicts our understanding of China as a heavy-handed authoritarian system. While the latter undoubtedly exists (any newspaper article written about the Olympics will tell you that side of the story) and while there is still problems with freedom of expression and free media, etc, there is something else happening in the streets and with the rapid transformations in Chinese cities and among Chinese citizens as they gain more economic freedom and more confidence. There is still a long way to go, but I don’t think the current system can sustain itself forever. How, and when, it will be undermined remains in question, but the fact that it is in progress is clear.

Previously: The OC Part 1: Mass Ornament

See Also: From Ants to People, an Instinct to Swarm (NY Times)

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