Since we are a TV-less household, I may be the last person on earth to see the Opening Ceremonies of the Chinese 2008 Olympics. I just watched them on the Internet Tubes. They struck me, as many others have noted, as remarkable. But I also believe there are seminal. Something not only memorable, but significant.
* The 2008 Opening Ceremonies were a spectacle. Spectacles are becoming more important in our culture. As mediated experiences overtake most of our waking hours, the power of a huge mass experience in real life rises in meaning. The grand scale of the Opening experience was a large part of its appeal. Where we would have ordinarily been content with 12 tai-chi experts, we got instead 2008 of them. Or a sphere big enough to have its own gravity so that scores of dancers could orbit it upside down. It was very important — even to those of use watching it on TV or the internet — that this performance was live. With people who could trip or make mistakes. That is why the minor breaches of this assumption — the lip syncing girl and digitally painted footprints — were decried. They diminished this remarkable feat of physical achievement.
* This was a new media. It had very strong cinematic and filmic elements — the movie projections on the rim, but also the narrative thread throughout. The spectacle was co-designed by filmmaker Zhang Yimou. He’s a world-class artist who directed many Chinese films, notably Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Both of these films are epic, visually extravagant feats of spectacle themselves, so it is no surprise to see similar elements in this new kind of film: the opening. The other element was the choreography by the People’s Army officer in charge of communist parades and grand musical showcases for moral uplift. There was also the key digital effects like he LED scroll and blinking drums. There was a lot of broadway and a lot of rock concert. Put all these together and it feels like an entirely new thing. Part rock, part opera, part film, part parade, part circus, part video game. A new medium. Apparently the Bird’s Nest stadium was designed specifically to showcase this spectacle, as no other venue could have possibly staged it. I wonder if it might stage another spectacle like it?
* It was both deeply alien and comforting at the same time. Both old and new. The message was successful — of presenting China’s pride of its history and its rising modern power. Not only will this be a landmark in contemporary China’s cultural psyche, but I think it will also resonate in the memory of the rest of the world. Something happened that night.
*The most alien, shocking and awesome portion of the Opening were the mass routines. Part of this is cultural. The Koreans are good at these mass effects, and the Japanese too. It’s somewhat an East Asian thing. Historically these mass dances are designed to resemble machines. The wave rippler in the Opening Ceremonies appeared to be a cool mechanical effect until the disguised boys inside them were revealed. The mass fou drummers beat so rapidly and in synchrony that when their lights started blinking it seemed as if we were watching a computer chip, or the innards of a drum machine. See the pic above. We are a machine! Machine are us! That is our first reaction but I think it goes further than that. The 2008 fou drummers represent the We — the power of the collective. The West and particularly Americans have traditionally emphasized the Me — the individual. China is a culture more comfortable with the We than the Me, and here they were showing both the power of the We and its modern face — blinking LED drums. We once thought computers were about individuation, but these days we see they are about socialization as well. More importantly, the social aspects of web 2.0 have shifted the center of gravity from Me to We. Witness books like Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody. Here come 2008 Chinese drummers. The great uncertainty in the coming years is how far China will shift to the Me and how far the west will shift to the We. What the Opening Ceremonies opened up was the arrival of the We. What I heard in the pounding pulse of the drummers was not “Here come the Chinese,” but “Here comes everybody.”
Long after the winners of the gold metals are forgotten, these Olympic Opening Ceremonies will be bookmarked as the Opening Ceremonies for China itself.
(I watched the longer version of the Opening Ceremonies on the NBC Olympic site. It sucks. You need to download the current version a non-standard Flash wannabe called Silverlight. That version only works on new Intel chipped versions of Macs, leaving our Mac G5 useless. Hello?)