Artists discuss impact of global 'mega-events'

This past Thursday afternoon, Pittsburgh Biennial artists Sarah Ross, Ryan Griffis, and Lize Mogel gave a lecture titled “Global Cities, Model Worlds,” shedding some light on the oft-observed, but seldom discussed, impact of global “mega-events.” These events, such as the World’s Fair and Olympic Games, profoundly transform their host communities. Insightful and entertaining, the presentation did a fabulous job of analyzing the massive socioeconomic footprint created by the confluence of such vastly diverse cultures, accounting for both the positives and negatives.

Consider, for example, the Olympic Games. Originally an Ancient Greek test of strength and endurance, the Games were revived in 1896 by French academic Pierre de Coubertin. Griffis described Coubertin’s philosophy as “civilizing people by competition.” While his words may seem a bit archaic, Coubertin’s underlying belief in the profound impact of the Games still resonates in modern Games. The 2008 Beijing Olympics required close to a decade of planning, so much so that Mogel likened the effect to the creation of an “Olympic village, or a global city” — a sprawling and seemingly self-sustaining city-within-a-city, equipped with infrastructure, banks, labor, and security forces. Griffis noted that these efforts were by no means futile, that the Beijing Olympics constituted not only a “physical mega-event, but a heavily media-sponsored visual one, attended by hundreds of millions of viewers around the world.”

The World’s Fair, described by Griffis as “an international harmony of commerce and culture,” is another colossal global expo. After a visual presentation of several cities’ world fairs, the presenters emphasized a core idea in their research: the theme of global progress, particularly conveyed by the host city. Mogel evidenced this notion of a “progressive vision of global utopia” by giving the example of San Francisco’s 1939 International Expo. The city took the progressive undertones of the event to heart, building both the Bay and Golden Gate Bridges for that very purpose. The fair itself was held on the man-made Treasure Island, a public project once again undertaken for the sake of progress. Mogel concluded that these events have immensely “developed the city, especially in the years following the fair.”

The final portion of the presentation turned the rest on its head: What is the downside to these mega-events? The presenters returned to events in China, this time to discuss the 2010 Shanghai Expo. Attended by over 70 million people, the event was undoubtedly amazing. However, as Ross put it: “While the event put Shanghai on the map, there’s a lot we didn’t get to see.” In planning the expo, over 3.65 million square meters of property were demolished, displacing hundreds of thousands of families in the process. Those that resisted this forceful eviction were referred to as “nail households,” since the properties stuck out like nails in the ruin. Griffis concluded that these mega-events provide a sort of media shield for host cities, overshadowing blatant violations of civil rights with gaudy “manifestations of the progressive vision.”

The “Global Cities, Model Worlds” talk gave both illuminating evidence about the power of these mega-events and raised questions about the negative effects of their associated progress. The most amazing part about the lecture was that it just examined the tip of the iceberg; nobody can cover in one hour a history full of events whose impacts lasted centuries. However, even this brief introduction is incredibly thought-provoking; what if a mega-event came to Pittsburgh? How would it impact the city, for better or for worse?