Saturday, August 09, 2008

Array Aesthetics (Olympic Edition)

The opening act of the Olympics was routinely spectacular in one sense, but it can also be read as a more interesting cultural, geo-political and aesthetic sign of the times. I'm talking about the massive array of (2008) drummers, who kicked off the show with a synchronised sound and light barrage. The traditional Fou drums they played were "augmented" with pressure-activated arrays of white LEDs set into the top, creating a modern variation on the opening ceremony staple of choreographed human/graphic arrays (image from

This not-very-subtle interweaving of old and new was a major theme of the ceremony, of course, but the drummers resembled nothing so much as a giant United Visual Artists show: the crisp light of the LEDs, the transitions from flickering chaos to global order, the articulation of individuality and global coordination (individual as pixel) and the intrinsically tight audiovisual sync. Intentionally or not, artistic director Zhang Yimou hit on major motifs in recent media art (blogged earlier). As well as UVA, see Monolake's Atom, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, and many more.

The opening ceremony is sending the same message, then, as the Games architecture: cultural and technological leapfrog. The Water Cube and the Birds Nest don't simply display China's modernity, they claim a jump into a digital, sustainable, mega-scaled future. The computational aesthetics of multiplicity that mark these structures are, again like the opening ceremony, a powerful cultural narrative: coherence, strength and beauty made of countless tiny pieces. Like the flickering grid of the drummers, the ordered diversity of these structures is important too, in that it's not total uniformity, a simple (modernist) grid. In fact these buildings contain a kind of post-industrial grid, where the uniformity or regularity is not literal or material, but procedural or computational - the computer's ability to resolve complex distributions of force is what enables the "organic" multiplicity here. Of course this post-industrial process hits the ground, on site, in the form of human labour, and that's where the social narrative begins to unravel (image by theojones).

The other none-too-subtle message of the opening ceremony was about technology, and specifically LEDs. LEDs are post-industrial lighting - semiconductors instead of mechanical-era glass and metal - not to mention efficient, bright, flexible, ubiquitous. They are already a feature of the olympic landscape in GreenPIX, a "zero energy media wall" that is also the world's largest LED display. They were everywhere in the opening ceremony, in the drummers sticks as well as the drums, the massive scroll display surface, and in the olympic rings. There was another old/new interplay here around lighting technology, with (digitally deployed) fireworks in the "old" role, but LEDs held centre stage in the stadium. Again this is a technology that is nascent in the West, and being taken up by the cogniscenti in art, design and architecture. And again, here China makes a show of trumping the West in a display of cultural and technological advancement and literally massive industrial clout. Here, above all, more is more.

p.s. Dan Hill's latest post offers an interesting angle on this, quoting Craig Clunas on the "modular mass production" of the Terracotta Army. Another array, of course.


Anonymous said...

In these ceremony images, the array form represents not only order, but also scale and size. Especially when framed, we imagine that the rest exists, unbounded.

This representation of size as generously shown elsewhere, freaks out America says Fareed Zakaria in his recent book The Post-American World.

Mitchell said...

I agree completely Burak. The array is a spatial device that says "and so on." I hadn't thought of this link until now, but I argued a while ago that there's something similar going on with multiplicity in generative art - that it's an image of generative potential - ongoing moreness. Thanks for the comment.

sportsbabel said...

i wonder how the fireworks at the end of the ceremony -- shown live on site, and in CGI on television -- fits in with the rest of your discussion on multiplicity? ... a short thought here.