Written by Sanja Vodovnik
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The origins of world fairs or world exhibitions are entwined with the industrial development of the late 19th century,1 a time when technology and advancements in transportation and communication provided a new perspective of the world. This worldview not only examined our relationships with others, but also our relationship with nature, earth and the universe. In her study of utopian media events that aimed to communicate this expansive worldview, Janine Marchessault asks: “Do we live in one world or many?”2 Is world a signifier for a common ground? Collaboration? Or is it something else?
In response to these questions, Marchessault proposes we look to the arts (the cinema in particular) as world-building projects that transform the conceptual imaginings of how we understand the world and how we orient ourselves within it. The implications go further than mere representation: art can provide a “training ground for sensory perception.”3 But more than just particular media experiments, the event of the Expo as a whole offered a training ground for a potential future. And while individual installations, pavilions, artefacts and interactions emerged from utopian aspirations, the event itself as a performance might have left a different impression on its visitors.
Professor Stephen Johnson, whose interview appears in the oral histories section of this website, visited the international world fairs in Montreal (Expo 67) and in Osaka, Japan (Expo 70) as well as the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) in 1967. He remembers these events as distinctly separate experiences. They were experiences of otherness, but they were also experiences of amazement, astonishment and wonder, particularly in connection with innovative architecture that actively reached out to its visitors with new technological tentacles. This out-of-world impression is perhaps not surprising because such events, along with amusement parks and techno-cities, are often designed with the aim of transporting their visitors into a world that is radically removed from the their everyday experience.4
Often designed as a total work of art (Gesamtkunstwerk), these sites are artificial as they are tangible, ready to be experienced with all the senses as a communal event. Expo 67, for example, offered such an experience, providing the visitors with its own transportation system, dress code and fashion, food and even a passport. The latter was given to each visitor upon entry and further solidified the experience of border crossing and traveling to a new place.
World expositions were created as ready-made environments, sometimes even ready-made cities, “technologically driven and reliant on commercial imperatives and popular culture.”5 At the 1939 World Fair in New York, the whole exhibition was designed to introduce the crowds to ‘The World of Tomorrow’ (the official title of the event), providing an opportunity to experience first-hand a series of scientific innovations that could be used in daily life. The Chicago World Fair in 1893 also established a clear division between “the ideal city … and the popular and commercial [area] with the Midway zone, which offered all sorts of amusements and displays.”6 The Midway later became a signifier for precisely the kinds of commercial attractions and inexpensive entertainment in fairs and expositions, sometimes referred to as the sideshow.
However, both Expos and the sideshow are also marked by separations: between the world of here and now and the materialized utopias of tomorrow, between the serious and the entertaining, perhaps even between business and fun.
As Johnson recounts in his interview, he remembers being at a distance with the sights and objects at Expo 67 in Montreal. In contrast to the sideshow at the CNE he saw that same year, he mostly remembers the buildings and artefacts of the Expo. People, although numerous, seemed to have gotten lost in the massive exhibition.
Taking the theme of ‘Man and his World,’ Expo 67 ran from April 27 to October 29, 1967. Unlike the 1939 New York Fair that proposed a technoutopia as ‘The World of Tomorrow,’ for Expo 67 tomorrow was already here, offering an insight into a future within reach. It was a grand project, both in financial terms (over $40 million), number of visitors (over 50 million) and participating countries (62 from all sides of the Iron curtain). Building parts of the site from scratch allowed the designers to work on a sort of blank slate—a space that was yet unaffected by the memories and traces of the city. This opened up opportunities for a concrete manifestation of what Frederic Jameson calls the utopian impulse – a political and practical implementation of an imagined utopia.7
The theme of Expo 67 was taken from a 1939 novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Terre des Hommes. The Canadians thinkers and writers tasked with the Expo’s theme aimed to transcend the novel’s sense of isolation and solitude. As Gabrielle Roy explained, “our own solitude can give us insight into the solitude of others. It can even cause us to gravitate towards one another as if to lessen our distress. Without this inevitable solitude, would there be any fusion at all, any tenderness between human beings?”8 While this speaks of a desire to come together it also reveals an underlying ideological view that sees the individual as the central and autonomous agent of history. The idea of isolation was implemented almost literary: Expo was staged on the islands in the St. Lawrence River. Amusingly, this sense of solitude was perfectly captured by one of the Expo’s hostesses during a CBC interview: “I should put up a sign that says ‘Please talk to me, I’m lonely.’”9
As Johnson recalls, going to these events was like going to another planet. But whereas the CNE seemed to be much more about the people and the performers, the focus at the Expos was on the environment. Visitors to Expo 67 became performers themselves, roaming around and exploring an immersive designed environment that was completely separated from the daily experiences of their familiar surroundings. In this other world, visitors were able to interact with other participants, but also with socio-political forces, producing new narratives of and within the event.
1 Janine Marchessault, Ecstatic Worlds: Media, Utopias, Ecologies. MIT Press, 2017, 132.
2 Janine Marchessault, Ecstatic Worlds: Media, Utopias, Ecologies. MIT Press, 2017, 3.
3 Alfred North Whitehead quoted in Marchessault, (Ecstatic Worlds: Media, Utopias, Ecologies. MIT Press, 2017, 5).
4 For instance, Disney’s EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) in Florida or Poitiers technopark in France.
5 Angela Ndalianis, Science Fiction Experiences. New Academia Publishing, 2011, 115-116.
6 James Burkhart Gilbert, Perfect Cities: Chicago’s Utopias of 1893. University of Chicago Press, 1991, 15.
7 Frederic Jameson, Archeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. Verso, 2007, 1-13.
8 Jean Marie Faber, Gabriel Roy and Guy Robert. Terres des Hommes/Man and His World. Canadian Corporation for the 1967 World Exhibition, 1967, 20.
9 The World At Six. “Expo 67 hostesses discuss Canadian men.” John O'Leary, John Sheltus. CBC, June 16, 1967. [https://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/expo-67-hostesses-discuss-canadian-men]
Faber, Jean Marie, Gabrielle Roy and Guy Robert. Terres des Hommes/Man and His World. Canadian Corporation for the 1967 World Exhibition, 1967.
Gilbert, James Burkhart. Perfect Cities: Chicago’s Utopias of 1893. University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Jameson, Frederic. Archeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. Verso, 2007.
Marchessault, Janine. Ecstatic Worlds: Media, Utopias, Ecologies. MIT Press, 2017.
Ndalianis, Angela. Science Fiction Experiences. New Academia Publishing, 2011.
The World At Six. “Expo 67 hostesses discuss Canadian men.” John O'Leary, John Sheltus. CBC, June 16, 1967. [https://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/expo-67-hostesses-discuss-canadian-men]