Expo? No Expo! The World’s Fair Mirrors a Bizarre Reality

Returning from the Expo in Italy my feet were dead. Searching, I walked them to a pulp. I covered quite a lot of ground. And found nothing.

Never have I seen so much of nothing. Nothing in unbelievable proportions, inconceivable nothing under the slogan, “Feeding the World, Energy for Life.” A huge accumulation of nothing in the form of bright, colourful pavilions. I went from pavilion to pavilion and found nothing, nothing and more nothing. This nothing was so impressive an intense feeling of emptiness spread throughout me, so overwhelming that I started questioning everything – my existence, that of the pavilions, of politics. Maybe I was dreaming. I wandered further, and the fear grew ever stronger that I could get lost among the carnival stands as high as a house and never find my way out, similar to Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. 

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“Welcome to the future we are working to create.” Barack and Michelle aren’t certain themselves if that’s a promise or a threat and gaze at me from the American pavilion with distorted faces. I ask a student assistant, a political science major, how she feels about McDonald’s having a pavilion at the Expo. She thinks it’s amazing and is happy that even large fast food chains know what’s up. There is a new ordering system at their pavilion. Brazil has set up a huge net, a trampoline! Slovenia is advertising its beaches. You can buy flights right inside. Russia built an incredible awning! Its reflective coating makes you recognize yourself when you look up. You can also see a lot of McDonald’s balloons under the awning. Inside there is a bar with neon colours, bubbles bubbling and coloured fog, seemingly a homage to the sci-fi fantasies of the last century. Nostalgic.

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But let’s look into the future at the Future Food District, after all there will soon be nine billion mouths to feed, as Barack and Michelle informed us repeatedly at the American pavilion. This is no reason to panic, however, for people get very innovative when the going gets tough. And that’s why there’s a solution for everything: Coop! (from co-op) Buy at Coop. In the future Coop will have an amazing shopping system. It works like this: you point at one of the products arranged on the shelf, and the screen above the shelf displays where the product comes from and what nutrients it contains. You can then have your full shopping basket delivered to your home. (As long as there’s still enough food for everybody. But let’s not talk about that.)

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When we talk about the 2015 Expo “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life,” we don’t need to discuss the issues of global food supply and sustainability. These don’t seem to matter here.

I had landed in a place that with the help of 12.5 billion euros managed to distance itself so far from reality it was slightly dizzying. The astonishing thing was that a closed group of people spewing their perky enthusiasm into the ether was trying to communicate that this here was indeed reality. But I still had my feet on the ground and built a bridge to (an alleged) reality by going over the same ground again: what exactly is an Expo in the first place?

The first Expo happened in 1851. This was at the peak of industrialization. The Expo was an industrial exhibition in which both components, the industrial and the exhibition, were new. Manufacturing products with industrial methods had been exported from England and was just arriving in Europe, bringing with it the possibility of displaying products to a broad audience. From this point forward exhibitions increased in size. Museums were built. Expos were organized. And most importantly, it appealed to a European institution: the desire for possessions and the hope for a corresponding identity. Individuality was exchanged for a type. In this vein, the public could be easily “educated,” trained in the ways of taste. Germano Celant, curator of the current exhibition, Foods & Arts at the Milan Triennial, argues that “losing oneself” in the world of the Expo constitutes a large part of its purpose. Visitors can restore their connection to reality by deciding to consume products.

However, Expo Education seems to far exceed this kind of consumerist propaganda and is more closely linked with the real political system than you would initially assume. “The world fair modelled the principle of capitalist democracy before it became an established form of government,” as the artist Jonas Staal put it. He links this to three conditions: 1) the peaceful coexistence of various, different minded nation-states via certain agreements; 2) not letting doubts arise regarding this peaceable status via propaganda or – as Edward Bernays rechristened the concept after the Second World War due to its negative connotation – the Public Relations Industry; 3) the close collaboration between the nation-state and corporations.

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It was striking to observe just how much these three components continue to constitute the Expo, starting with national representation in national pavilions. Their absurdly palatial architecture represents nothing more than national pride – long since obsolete, you would think – which leads to hollow competition, precluding any kind of substantial discussion. Then there’s the massive PR communications apparatus. It has made it a point of communicating nothing so enthusiastically as to essentially smother all oppositional voices. Finally, the cooperation of nation-state and corporation manifests itself plainly in the corporate pavilions of Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and a few others. Corporations and nations are being put on the same level, despite the fact that the corporations’ basic principles diametrically oppose the nations’ officially declared goals.

What is also striking is how well we all know these mechanisms outside of the Expo. So in the end I had to come to the conclusion: the Expo is in fact a mirror

It especially reflects the momentum of a capitalism that needs increasingly less democracy to survive. And it shows us why it is so difficult to set change in motion, even when dealing with such essential issues as global food supply. For politics/an Expo should – no let me change that – cannot, in its current configuration listen to those who actually have something to say.

On the way to the NoExpo Demonstrationon May 1st in Milan

“The Expo is a vanity fair,” Herzog and DeMeuron say. They were among those who had something to say. With the architects, Boeri, McDonough and Burdett and Slow Food founder, Carlo Pertrini, they developed a master plan that moves away from national pride toward discussion and debate. The pavilions would have strongly resembled one another. They would have differed content-wise and not architecturally from one another. They would have been sustainably planned and predestined for reuse in agriculture. The entire area (which was partially used for agriculture before) would have not been covered with concrete.

It all made quite a lot of sense, but then everything happened differently, and it wasn’t really clear as to why. There was an enigmatic momentum to things. Jacques Herzog: “Maybe it is like a swarm of fish swimming in one direction; we tried to navigate it in the other, but somehow they kept swimming.” The five architects and Petrini let the Expo swarm to swim off and withdrew in 2011, carefully concealed by the Public Relations Industry.

In spite of this, Herzog, DeMeuron and Petrini are still represented at the Expo: at the Slow Food pavilion. There you can get an impression of how things could have been. Three simple, elongated structures made of wood have been arranged to frame an aromatic courtyard with an herb garden. Inside and out you can experience biodiversity with all the senses – tasting, smelling, listening, reading. Another pleasant surprise: Austria. In the Austrian pavilion: a forest, serenity, crispness. Its subject matter: oxygen. The building: energy self-sufficiency.

These two places are exceptions to a quite insane rule.

The next Expo will be 2017 in Kazakhstan.

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