The amazing toxic dreams and their cast of sad clowns
The Circus of Life – A to Z
The Circus of Life – A to Z takes its point of departure from the basic idea of The World Fair (The Weltausstellung as it was called in Vienna in 1873.)
Known also as Expo (short for world exposition or universal exposition) the fair is a large public exhibition that is held in varying parts of the world.
Since their inception in 1851, the character of world expositions has evolved. Three eras can be distinguished: the era of industrialisation, the era of cultural exchange, and the era of nation branding.
The first era “Industrialisation” focused on the display of technological inventions and advancements. World expositions were the platforms where the state-of-the-art in science and technology from around the world were brought together. (Inventions such as the telephone were presented first in the expo)
The second era was all about specific cultural themes. World’s fairs forecasted a better future for society. The themes’ titles were “Building the World of Tomorrow”, “Peace Through Understanding”, and “Man and His World”. The fairs encouraged effective intercultural communication for the exchange of innovation.
From Expo 88 in Brisbane onwards, countries started to use expositions as a platform to improve their national image through their pavilions. The pavilions became advertising campaigns, and the Expo a vehicle for ‘nation branding.’
The fascination with presenting the peak of human achievement in technology, science and culture has, of course, its roots in the example of the natural history museums that mushroomed in Europe in the 19th century. It is in essence the colonialist idea of showing-off the achievements of countries and corporations, as Marx pointed out in the regard to the Crystal Palace’s The Great Exhibition, 1851. He saw the exhibition as an emblem of a capitalist fetishism of commodities. Nowadays, the Expo is more of a global enterprise, We Are The World type of exhibition but with the capitalist fetishism of commodities still in its centre.
In France, the transformation of natural history into a public spectacle was a consequence of the French Revolution. All over Europe, by the early 19th century, the collection and display of living people from around the world was also becoming a popular feature in natural history museums. To some extent, as was the case with curiosity cabinets, the collecting of live human exhibits in Europe was rooted in the practices of the aristocracy, reaching back to early colonial times. From the end of the 16th century, it was not uncommon for wealthy families to “collect Africans as exotica, along with apes, camels, leopards and elephants.” The display of exotic people became a more and more frequent attraction in Europe’s public museums and fairs. With this development, the meaning of these captives shifted. While aristocrats have used their human trophies as symbols of a sumptuous lifestyle, public exhibits were more often presented to popularise fashionable scientific arguments regarding the innate inferiority of the people being displayed.
The Crystal Palace’s The Great Exhibition, 1851, did nothing to correct this impression. The Japanese village, for example, had a similar presentation mode “The display of exotic people” even if it looked like a sincere attempt to present a brave new world and culture. The same can be said about the Japanese pavilion in Vienna 1873.
The effect the World’s Fair pavilions had on the viewers can be described as “reading”, or being inside, a live-encyclopaedia. Knowledge is acquired via walking around a semi-replica of an imaginary world (the Expo vast exhibition ground) and observing the wonders of a better future.
This is how the writer Charlotte Bronte described her visit to the Crystal Palace’s The Great Exhibition, 1851:
“Yesterday I went for the second time to the Crystal Palace. We remained in it about three hours, and I must say I was more struck with it on this occasion than at my first visit. It is a wonderful place – vast, strange, new and impossible to describe. Its grandeur does not consist in one thing, but in the unique assemblage of all things. Whatever human industry has created you find there, from the great compartments filled with railway engines and boilers, with mill machinery in full work, with splendid carriages of all kinds, with harness of every description, to the glass-covered and velvet-spread stands loaded with the most gorgeous work of the goldsmith and silversmith, and the carefully guarded caskets full of real diamonds and pearls worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. It may be called a bazaar or a fair, but it is such a bazaar or fair as Eastern genii might have created. It seems as if only magic could have gathered this mass of wealth from all the ends of the earth – as if none but supernatural hands could have arranged it this, with such a blaze and contrast of colours and marvellous power of effect. The multitude filling the great aisles seems ruled and subdued by some invisible influence. Amongst the thirty thousand souls that peopled it the day I was there not one loud noise was to be heard, not one irregular movement seen; the living tide rolls on quietly, with a deep hum like the sea heard from the distance.”
Charles Dickens, on the other hand, said after visiting the exhibition:
“I’m not saying there’s nothing to see, but that there’s too much to see.”
To give an idea how the typical Expo operated, lets take the the New York City Expo World’s Fair 1964. Walt Disney was hired to create the central attractions. such as the turning theatre. Theatregoers were astonished when, instead of stage-hands moving sets in and out, the audience moved! Seats revolved around four central stages, carousel style, giving rise to the ride’s eventual name, carousel of Progress.
How did it work?
On stage 1, theatregoers met an extended family in their home at the dawn of the 20th century, (unknowingly) struggling with a hand-cranked washing machine, a gas lamp, and other primitive household technologies of the day. In stage 2, during the 1920s, life had improved a bit, with electric lighting, a sewing machine, and a radio making an appearance. When stage 3 rolled around, in the 1940s, a television and a washing machine have made life considerably easier. But the final stage offered a glimpse of digital utopia.
“I’m thrilled with my new dishwasher,” proclaims Sarah, the mother of the family. Freed of yet another household chore by automation, she now has more time to join “garden club, a literary society, a ladies bowling league.” Husband John enjoys a similar boon of free time, thanks to modernity. All the while, the Animatrons (the robot-like creatures that would come to dominate Disney displays) urge members of the audience to join them as they break into song, belting out the ride’s theme, “It’s a Great, Big Beautiful Tomorrow” – the melody sounds a bit like It’s a Small World. Millions left the ride humming the catchy tune, convinced that innovation and ambitious corporations were going to fill our lives with leisure time and pleasure.
Where did it all go so wrong?
It took labor unions hundreds of years to get workers nights and weekends off; smartphones have taken them away in less than a decade.
Leisure? We’re still waiting.
The Circus of Life – A to Z is a small scale World Fair performance. A 13 hours live encyclopaedia that presents “people and their world” today. The world of tomorrow is here already, we are living the dream. Everyday is a Walt Disney ride and our life is a carousel of progress operating at breakneck pace.
What are the ingredients of this ride? What constitutes our world today?
The show follows in an alphabetical order, encyclopaedia-like, the various elements that put together create a “profile” of modern life.
The different life-entry “scenes” are presented on tiny “stages” (“pavilions”) that are spread all over the performing area. The public travels from one stage to another as if wandering around the Expo Village. The life-entry “scenes” are shown in succession, as in a boxing match, each round announced with the presenting cards of a new letter of the alphabet.
The life-entry “scenes” vary in the style of presentation. From a semi-scientific lecture presentation, to song and dance routines, to a theatrical staging a la vaudeville, to a ‘show and tell’ mode of demonstration, to industrial shows methods of presenting a new product, to live commercial, to stand-up comedy, to live-shooting of TV sitcoms, to Disney theme-park performance.
The life-entry topics/subjects are chosen based on the three modes of exploration that characterises the Expo tradition. Our era’s technological inventions, cultural themes and ways of living. Thus for example the first entry -A- as in Abramovic Marina/The feature artist pavilion that celebrates the work of this artist to the entry -I- Ikea as representing the move to mass-production, ready made homes and the Do-It-Yourself approach to living to M – Macintosh computer as both representing technological innovation and contemporary life style.
The move from A to Z takes 13 hours, with each entry taking, approximately, the same amount of time (25–27 minutes per letter.) The presenters, performers, singers, actors, vary from scene to scene. The costumes, sets, small stages are built in the cheap-theatre tradition (cardboards, plastic, ready made carnival costumes.) The main aim is to create a Fair atmosphere within the performing area. Audience can come and go, move between the “stages”, engage in the action taking place, eat, drink, and exchange.