Tourists and Collectors Enter the World of Tomorrow: An Interview with Angela Ndalianis (Part Two)

You suggest some connections between the birth of Superman and the 1939 World’s Fair with its theme, “A World of Tomorrow.” Explain.

The New York World Fair of 1938-9 reflected a mindset of the times that saw utopia as becoming an achievable reality in the not too distant future. The birth of Superman was also very much a product of a culture that nurtured this mindset; Superman was a character from a science fiction reality, and the product of a technologically advanced society as represented in his home planet of Krypton. His arrival on Earth was very much presented as the arrival of a god-like being who offered humanity its own utopian potential. In the real-world context of the late 1930s, visionary futures were considered realizable as a result of advances in scientific knowledge, technological development, and urban planning. As early back as the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, World Expositions and Fairs – especially in the U.S. – had explored the concern with creating idealized cities but it was the 1938-9 NY fair (and the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition of 1933-1934 that preceded it) that took the first important steps in forging a relationship between science and society. But more significantly, these concerns were integrated with the visions and consumer pleasures that were offered by science fiction and entertainment. The futuristic, technologically reliant cities found typically in science fiction examples like the Buck Rogers comic strips, sf novels of Edward Bellamy and H.G.Wells, and sf magazines like Amazing Stories collided with science at the New York World Fair. In particular, living up to the Fair’s motto “Designing the World of Tomorrow”, the industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes created his ‘Futurama’ exhibit – a City of the Future in 1960. Designed as a diorama, viewers sat high above this miniature city while a motorized belt moved them around the exhibit. Drawing heavily on the aesthetics of flight – both through the technological capabilities of aviation and the biological capacity of the Superman body – the omnipotent view point from above was further empowered by the sensation of flight. To cap it all off, on July 4, 1940 the fair hosted ‘Superman Day’ (with the actor Ray Middleton playing Superman) and a further association between Superman and the U.S. was sealed. Superman’s first appearance was in Action Comics #1, in 1938, and his own series began in 1939, but 1939 also saw the publication of New York World’s Fair Comics and the two issues that were released at the 1939-40 exposition featured both Superman and Batman visiting the New York Fair to solve crimes. The new figure of the superhero was clearly seen as playing an important role in envision a future, utopian America. In the 1980s, the All-Star Squadron comic book series would return to these origins by placing their superhero team in the 1940s with their headquarters based in the Trylon and Perisphere – the iconic buildings created for the fair.

To broaden outward, much of your work has centered around juxtapositions across media and across historical periods. For example, your book, Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment, combines consideration of Baroque painting and architecture with discussions of contemporary amusement parks and special effects. What do you gain by bringing old and new together in this fashion?

What I enjoy about adopting this approach is exploring and unraveling the dynamic process that is history, and trying to understand the connections that exist across diverse media that may, on the surface, appear to be radically different to one another, but which on closer inspection share a great deal in terms of perceptual, cognitive and sensory responses they may want to extract from their audiences, despite the temporal and cultural gaps. One of the things I’m primarily interested in my research is the history and development of entertainment media. How have certain experiences remained the same, and how and why have they altered. In my (almost finished!!) book on theme parks for example, I look at the parallels that exist between the aristocratic villa gardens of C16th-C18th and theme parks like Disneyland and Universal Studios. In addition to the layouts and design of the park spaces (which have much in common with the plans for villa gardens), I love comparing the minutiae – all the smaller gadgets and media toys that make these places generate delight and pleasure.

Take the trick fountain, for example: in the gardens of Versailles, Louis XIVth and his followers were entertained by the sudden spurts of water that would spray them as they walked by a statue or seat that were rigged as trick fountains. The Alice in Wonderland labyrinth in Disneyland Paris and Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure have almost identical entertainment features that are similarly rigged to trigger gut, sensory reactions of laughter, surprise and joy from their recipients. I remember the fabulous little fountain in the Lost Continent section of the Islands of Adventure. The fountain didn’t pretend to be anything other than a fountain, but this one seduces you into its world by acknowledging your presence and by clearly being able to see your actions; just when you feel comfortable with it and engage it in conversation, a spurt of water erupts from one or two of the many barely visible holes that are on its surface and sprays you in the face or body. Hysterical! Crowds of people stand around waiting to see the next victim become part of this slapstick routine. What does this tell us? Well, humans are still entertained by similar toys but with one dramatic difference. The space that’s home to this fountain no longer belongs to royalty and to a select few who wield power over the masses. This is now a space that entertains the masses. But are the masses the new royalty, or is this now the role performed by the multinational corporations? Lots of questions that need untangling but which are not necessarily easy to find answers to; I think there’s more to be gained from opening up and presenting more questions that complicate these relationships between the past and the present, than providing black and white answers that simplistically draw conclusions (e.g. ‘the new royalty are they corporations who are the new oppressors of the people’ – it would be easy to conclude this, but I think it would offer a myopic understanding of the complex relationships and conclusions that can be extracted via, in this case, a comparison of trick fountains and their function in entertainment spaces past and present).

A new research project I’ve just started also adopts a media historical approach. I’m looking at emerging examples of artificially sentient beings, in particular, robots like QRIO, Asimo and Zeno and artificial intelligence programs used in computer games and film effects – in other words, examples from within an entertainment context. But I’m also researching their historical precedents, the intention being to place current robot and AI technologies within the context of the diverse media, trans-temporal and cross-cultural history that they belong; it’s through such an approach that a deeper awareness of the historical and cultural implications of humanity’s continued fascination with artificial life will emerge. The automaton, for example, is a mechanical predecessor of the robot and harks back to medieval times but reached its peak in popularity in the C18th and C19th in Europe and Japan. While the automaton was reliant on clockwork mechanics and lacked any form of sentience, it shared something crucial with the contemporary examples: a product of technological and scientific invention was presented as entertainment. Like Sony’s QRIO, entertainment was the vehicle that delivered the automaton’s performance as technological display of the possibilities of new science and technology. To date, no study has asked why? Why entertainment? I guess, I want to ask ‘why’?

You have written extensively through the years about the amusement park and location-based entertainment more generally, a topic which has received only limited scholarly attention given its cultural and economic importance. What do you think the study of amusement parks contributes to our understanding of media convergence?

The amusement park and, especially the theme park, is the example of media convergence par excellence. In some respects, it serves a similar role to the earlier World Expositions and Fairs. It’s in the theme parks that the latest in entertainment technology is trialed and first exposed to the public. The most cutting edge examples of film technology, for example, has first been experienced in the theme park – the Omnimax experience offered by the Back to the Future ride in the 1980s, or the 3D Imax extravaganzas of the Terminator 3D and Spiderman rides at Universal studios more recently. But these weren’t only film experiences. The theme park, and its ride technologies, bargain on engaging the audience on intense and immediate multiple sensory levels and the way this is most effectively achieved is through media convergence. Let’s take the Spiderman ride: it’s a truly multimedia experience that immerses the participant in cartoons on television, sculptured and architectural environments that reproduce the spaces of the Daily Bugle and New York, filmed environments in 3D on IMAX screens, and amusement park roller coaster technology that flies us seamlessly through all these different media. Add to this the fact that Spiderman originated in comics, then became a series of animated cartoons and tv shows as well as a series of highly successful blockbuster films and a phenomenal theme park attraction and you have the ultimate in media convergence. The thing with the theme parks, though, is that the convergence is more literal and in your face.

You are just about to start an extensive project focused on the impact of new media on collector culture. Can you give us a preview of some of the key themes you plan to explore there? How might comics collecting fit within the book’s core arguments?

Yes, I’m co-writing a book with Jim Collins from the University of Notre Dame, which is tentatively (and possibly permanently) titled Curatorial Culture. What we’re interested in is the radical transformations that have occurred in collecting culture in light of the central role that entertainment media conglomerates and digital technologies are playing in global culture. New delivery systems are redefining what going to a movie or watching TV means at the beginning of the C21st, just as they have also transformed the “display” of images at art museums throughout the world, and the accessibility and portability of digital information has given rise to a curatorial culture in which seemingly anyone can assemble their own music, film, television and art libraries. I know someone (who shall remain nameless) who owns every Superman comic book ever published – and it’s stored on his/her hard drive. I mean, that’s phenomenal! Do you know how much physical space you’d need to house (let alone actually find copies of) every Superman comic every written? Our book asks how the omnipresence of the personalized digital archive has altered our understanding of what acquiring culture means, whether it be in the form of an iPod playlist, a media home library, or a public art museum.

We’re looking at the relationship between private and public archives as a shifting continuum that depends increasingly on the convergence of media space and museum space, and we’re investigating this continuum by concentrating on five distinct sites of convergence-personal media technology, the private home, the public art museum, the retail store, and the urban landscape. So in addition to looking at ipod culture and p2p downloading and collecting, we’re also interested in the fluid exchange between high culture and pop culture aesthetics – what Jim calls High Pop. Retail centers like those owned by Nike, Apple, Sony and Prada hire ‘star’ architects like Koolhaas, Hadid, and Gehry who have designed destination museum sites to design their retail spaces as unique consumer experiences, while also displaying their consumer products as if they’re original artworks on display in a gallery. Or, to give you a couple of examples from the city of Las Vegas…. The new CityCenter residential-retail-entertainment complex being built on the Strip (and owned by MGM Mirage) will include a $40 million public Fine Art program that will distribute contemporary masterpieces throughout CityCenter’s public spaces – the gaming areas, hotel and residential towers, and the retail and entertainment districts will now all serve the role of public gallery. Las Vegas represents–in intensified form–the ways in which our urban environments and leisure experiences are transforming into a collecting and display culture that has collapsed traditional boundaries that demarcated spaces of art display and those of consumerism and mass pleasures. In very real ways, the city of Las Vegas does precisely this: it visualizes global, conglomerate culture at its most intense point and, in the process, transforms itself into a living museum. In the Bellagio Casino Hotel, for example, traditionally cultural opposites collide: a visitor can tempt fate by feeding slot machines, and then walk out of the gambling hall and into the Bellagio Fine Art Gallery that’s situated down the corridor to view the works of Picasso, Monet, Renoir and Van Gogh (who were on display when I visited). Even more bizarrely, in the Bellagio’s Picasso restaurant it’s possible to taste and smell the delights conjured by the “legendary” Spanish chef Julian Serrano, while being surrounded by the paintings and drawings of that other legendary Spaniard, which decorate the walls of the restaurant. Picasso’s name now serves a dual function: Picasso the artist who created masterpiece artworks, and Picasso the restaurant that now promises to feed its customers with masterpiece food creations. What Vegas is lacking is a Superheroes casino and entertainment complex. When that happens, I’ll be packing my bags and moving to the city of lights.

Angela Ndalianis is Head of Screen Studies at Melbourne University. Her research focuses on entertainment media and their histories, and she’s especially interested in the aesthetic and formal implications of media collisions between films, computer games, television, comic books and theme parks – an area she has published widely in. Some of her publications include Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment (2004), and the anthologies The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero (2008) and Super/Heroes: from Hercules to Superman (2007). She is currently completing the book Spectopolis: Theme Park Cultures, which looks at the historical and cultural influence of and on the theme park, and is co-authoring a book titled Curatorial Culture with Jim Collins.

She can be contacted on angelan@unimelb.edu.au