Follow by Email

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Contemporary Gladiator

Today's gladiators aren't necessarily the testosterone infused warriors above. Nor are they slaves and enemies of the state. Instead, the mortals drawn to engage in battle are plucked from the hoi polloi, the masses, and there have been many works of contemporary fiction that borrow this idea of commoners competing against each other for society's entertainment. Classic examples such as Stephen King's The Running Man and The Long Walk and Koushun Takami's Batoru Rowaiaru (Battle Royale), plunge your local neighbour, relative, and workmate into dangerous arenas that are broadcast to multitudes. I'm currently engrossed in reading the Hunger Games trilogy, and when the protagonist clinging onto life could be someone you know or even yourself, the immediate drama that unfolds becomes visceral.

Indeed, the allure and addiction of reality television is that ANYONE has the potential access to recognition and rewards but at a high risk. It's less random than a lottery ticket, and the exposed psychological reactions provide a fascinating study into the range of human emotions. A brilliant satire of today's obsession with reality TV can be seen in the film Series 7: The Contenders by director Daniel Minahan. In it, five everyday Americans are selected to fight to the death while a camera crew and producers document every blow and weepy confessional. The film is presented as a straight marathon of the show's 7th season featuring a return champion vying for her freedom. Oh, she's also pregnant.

In a more positive light, certain reality shows include the spin of including educational demonstrations and showcasing actual talent. It reminds me of a sub-genre of documentary films that follow the aspirations of quirky individuals performing in niche competitions: prepubescent spellers in Spellbound, scrabblers in Word Wars, and Chinese campaigners in Please Vote for Me come to mind. Works of fiction in a similar vein include the classic Chorus Line and Christopher Guest's deadpan movie, Best in Show.

The most radical form of schadenfreude catharsis arrived in Josh Harris's art experiment, QUIET: We Live in Public. Ondi Timoner's documentary of the same name (We Live in Public) reveals the dark and deranged footage of about 150 volunteers living together in a NYC basement fully wired with webcams and monitors. Every participant lived in a podlike bunker equipped with a TV set that showed live feeds of the orgiastic compound. No square footage was safe from scrutiny: the communal shower, dining hall, and other pods where people openly fornicated. To encourage uninhibited behavior, illicit drugs were available buffet style, and there was even a shooting range where people could go aggro after undergoing one-on-one sessions with a live-in psychologist who snapped people's spirits like uncooked spaghetti (all under the lens of course).

Two critical elements distinguish themselves in QUIET's dystopian rave party:
1) It is a non-stop surveilled environ rather than an edited product.
2) The participants of the project are simultaneously the viewer and the guinea pig.

There's something romantic about the notion of living so openly and publicly. We are ALL in the public sphere (especially so if you have a Facebook, Twitter, Blog, or even just an email account). Why not just admit privacy is a Matrix-y illusion, right? On the flip side, We Live in Public shows that a buffer or distance between fellow men and women is necessary to maintain sanity and a semblance of self. Humans are prone to attachment and sometimes the groundswell of community and fellowship can lead to activism (see: 99%) or hysteria (witch trials anyone?). I haven't figured out yet what factors contribute to where the needle pitches (light or dark) once a collective force has gathered. I only know that the technological social sap that glues us together is tasty and addictive stuff. People like Mark Zuckerberg are billionaires for knowing first.

To read about someone's experience in QUIET:

Watch Ondi Timoner's trailer for her excellent documentary here:


  1. It's amazing to me how we have unblinkingly slipped into era where we are being taped virtually all day long. Years ago employees would get quite bent out of shape when management would put in a camera "to spy on them." Now it's hardly noticed. How many times do we see on the news video of people robbing places with no mask just oblivious to the camera. After you posted this I stopped and thought and couldn't think of anytime after I left home today that I wasn't being recorded. From the security camera in the parking lot, all the intersections have 4 way live cameras, when I went into stores, the camera in the ATM. I'm used to personal intrusion for lack of a better word. I've been in and out of lot of hospitals and gotten used to cameras snaking in and around my insides. The last time they were rooting around in my butt a group of students were standing around a big screen TV watching along with me. I admit I would appreciated at least some applause. The last test I had done I laid for an hour in some big machine and could see on the big screen it mapping each little blood vessel in my body. It actually was quite beautiful as overall it had a Shroud of Turin effect. The doctors weren't amused when I titled the work "Jesus with dick." I've gotten off the point, sorry.

    Anyway, I'm anxiously watchful of that needle slipping to the dark with more frequency. We all saw the use of social media in the "Arab Spring." I think back to when the Rodney King cops were acquitted and large scale rioting, and looting and burning buildings broke out overwhelming the police department. TV was the only media involved then. Usually once the fray breaks out it's just throngs of individuals going bat shit. Someday with flashmob technology I fear we will see events like these with the one thing they miss... command and control. "Avoid this street - tear gas." "Building over here needs burning." "Best Buy still has TVs to loot." Dangerous could instantly turn deadly. Hopefully the same technology will also be used for good. It could well help in a disaster like Katrina direct people to safety and resources and avoid dangerous areas.

    On the privacy issue the bright side is we have people like you though art exploring with us these boundaries of privacy. You've endured the hovering of reality TV cameras, and bared your skin if not your soul in some of your works.

    Kudos to you, and see you didn't have to once poop in a bunker. :)

  2. Technology is not inherently good or evil, but it depends on those wielding it -- or so they say. Of course, certain technologies are developed specifically for a negative bottom line, but I like to think that as a rule, the more connected we are, the more inherent checks and balances are put into place.

    Here is a positive example of social techniques (as opposed to social media) that create a new language for how masses of people can reach consensus as opposed to going "batshit crazy":

    Fortunately, authoritarian voices (see: North Korean regime) are too singular in their suffocating visions and messages to fully utilise social media's full potential. You can't invite everyone to the party and expect them to shut up and listen to a monologue. Even at key speeches throughout history, there's murmuring and chatter. That's my guess why governments like China would rather shut down Facebook and Twitter rather than trying to usurp it. Too many cracks that can't be patched.

    Finally, in response to not pooping in the bunker, Jerry Saltz actually reveals in his blog this week that yes, we WERE recorded doing our very human things (farting, burping, going to the bathroom)..not on camera, but through our microphones:

  3. Those poor folks in North Korea. If you've seen the documentary "A State of Mind" or Lisa Ling's documentary I hope you are as amazed as I am as at how seemingly totally indoctrinated the people are. Every time their power would go out they would shake their fists at the sky and grumble, "Damn USA!" WTF?

    Well, I am thankful for the good uses so far. Twenty years ago you couldn't see an artist on TV, go to their website, view their works, or miracles of miracles actually talk with the artist. Often the only remote access to the art was a gallery catalog or some mind numbing review.

    Thanks for the link to Jerry Saltz article. I hope his statement, "I want to see if criticism can coherently be performed for audiences outside art-land, where we have weird ways of talking that many of us don’t actually understand." works. He said he'd like to see a 3 hour episode of crits, but I'm sure he doesn't want the suicide rate to sky rocket.

    To close and hopefully make you laugh...
    I was sitting waiting in the dialysis center this morning and had to stare at the typical ghost made out of a sheet. I've been thinking of ideas for Halloween, and my mind drifted to your image "Chimera." I am toying with the idea of tossing a sheet over my head putting a slit in it and making the kids grab for butter finger bars. Funny as I found it, I slowly came back to reality as I pondered how bad a taser might actually feel. I'm not sure what law I would be breaking but I'm sure there would be a trial. Of course, as my attorney unveiled a blow up of your work to explain the inspiration for my madness and said "Tada!" all I can say is it would be worth a few thousand in fines just to see the look on the jurors faces and watch the judge go nuts with his gavel. Oh well, a guy can dream.

  4. @Snortles -

    Yes, I've seen both of the NK documentaries you mentioned. I always imagine what life would've been like for my family had my grandfather not hatched a risky escape plan.

    It's truly fascinating for me to be sitting on the computer interacting with various viewers and reading instant feedback about the show and the work. I relish the opportunity for honest, open criticism where there is no agenda from the couch critic. I welcome all the love and all the hate.

    Re: your Halloween costume -- sometimes our best ideas are best kept for ourselves!